Bad Indoor Air | A Silent Killer That Surrounds Us All

By Conrad Barrett

In communities around the World an emerging health issues is also one of the most overlooked – air quality. Recently, we are becoming more aware of the negative effects of air pollution. But what most people don’t know is that Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) is becoming a more prominent issue, and its ever increasingly negative effects are showing little signs of diminishing. 

As far back as 1984, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated; “up to 30 percent of new and remodeled buildings worldwide may be the subject of excessive [health related] complaints related to indoor air quality.” (Citation 1). More recently, research done by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discovered that 60% of human diseases are related to poor IAQ. 

Given that most human beings spend about 90% of their time inside, whether it be school, work, home, poor IAQ affects just about everyone. Poor IAQ, is very important to me because it is a silent killer that affects me and every person on the planet that goes indoors, and there is not enough being done about it.

Poor IAQ can create a phenomenon knows as Sick Building Syndrome (SBS). SBS occurs when a building promotes the cause and transmission of sickness and disease to its occupants through the air. CBS 60 Minutes claims that people living in buildings built after 2000 are all at risk of suffering from SBS. In total, as many as 25% of all buildings we live and work in today likely have issues associated with SBS. Therefore, SBS is not good for the health of the employees, and it is also bad for the health of the businesses that operate within these buildings. EPA studies suggest that poor IAQ can reduce employee productivity by 6-15%.

A key reason why SBS occurs in so many newer buildings correlates to the fact that newer buildings implement all possible methods to reduce the amount of air lost from the building to reduce operating costs such as heating and air conditioning. By implementing such high standards, we create airtight conditions, which deny harmful particles from leaving buildings. Over time this leads to a concentration of harmful air borne particulate which worsens the effect on people who breathe the poor indoor air. High real estate costs are motivating more employers to concentrate their workplace populations, which places people even closer together. This high concentration of germs and people exacerbates the problem of IAQ even further.

Some companies have begun to try and fix the transmission of germs by focusing mostly on disease spread through physical contact. Hand Sanitizer stations and signs reinforcing the positive effects of Washing Hands have become prevalent throughout society today. Unfortunately, studies show that only 14% disease causing bacteria are passed through contact, while 86% of germs are transmitted through the air. So while this activity is beneficial, it is only helping slightly because it does not deal with the majority of disease that is spread employee to employee, which happens through the air. There are few, if any, “indoor areas” in which the issue of poor IAQ will not be prevalent.

While the negative effects of poor IAQ are becoming more evident, the causes are not as obvious. There are many common particles in indoor air that can affect the health of humans such as viruses, bacteria, chemicals, molds allergens, radon and other microbial organisms. Excessive or repeated exposure can cause headaches, nausea, runny noses, shortness of breath, itchy eyes, skin rashes, sleepiness and many others. Even more seriously, these symptoms can cause mental confusion, falling asleep while doing dangerous jobs, stimulating the growth of cancer cells, and other life threatening ailments.

There are many solutions to poor IAQ. The first step to making a meaningful change, is to developing awareness of the issue amongst employers and employees. If it remains unknown, then no one will make attempts to fix it. I believe that the best away to build awareness is through attempts of getting it talked about in the Press/News. If poor IAQ was talked about as much as poor outside air pollution it would quickly become a well-known problem.

By focusing messaging on employers that work in highly affected areas it would also serve to accelerate improvements. These include the offices of doctors, dentists, call centers, and concentrated office environments. Attention should also be paid to work environments in which very high valued employees work – including Senior Executives and Professional Sports Team locker rooms.

A second intervention is the modification of employee behaviour. Due to the fact that many sicknesses are transmitted through the air, developing policies that create a culture in which sick employees are encouraged to stay home when they are ill can significantly temper the spread of airborne illness in the workplace. Though, in our modern fast paced working world this is can be hard to do.

Third, employers should change workplace practices that involve harmful materials such as paint, chemicals, and cleaning supplies to name just a few. Unused items should be stored in well ventilated spaces, and their use should be limited to when few people are present. For example, employers should have work spaces that are cleaned with chemical substances done after the majority of employees leave, and long before they return the next day.

Finally, employers can install, and employees can demand, the introduction of high quality technology to help improve indoor air conditions. Heat Recovery Units (HRV) work to bring fresh air into the building and send the contaminated air back outside without a loss of heating or cooling energy. Employers can also install high quality indoor air purifiers, like those produced by Surgically Clean Air, who make the world’s best indoor air cleaners. Units like those produced by Surgically Clean Air can remove up to 99.8% of harmful particulate from indoor air.

Within our modern way of living, poor Indoor Air Quality has become another big issue that needs to be addressed in our communities. If indoor air quality is not properly maintained, it will create even more health problems. 

Fortunately, there are many possible solutions that can help us prevent this from becoming even worse, we just have to increase awareness, affect our behavior, and implement the right technologies that can help.

This problem is very relevant to me. As I enter university, enroute to becoming a working citizen myself, I will spend more and more time working indoors and the issue will become even more personally relevant to me. Additionally, as I pursue a vocation in medicine, hopefully as a doctor, it will become increasingly relevant to me professionally as well. With my increased awareness I am now more eager than ever to make a difference in poor IAQ – I hope lots of others will join me as well. Together, we can easily make a big difference, and stop this silent killer in its tracks.

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