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Clearing the Air about Indoor Air Quality

Posted on January 9, 2010

How an Indoor Air Quality review can make your business healthier and more profitable

By: Scott H. Lawson M.S., President and Certified Industrial Hygienist

Today’s business environment is both aggressive and highly competitive. As any smart CEO knows, taking anything for granted these days is setting oneself up for failure. As a result, successful business executives have become experts in micromanagement and multitasking. It is impossible, however, for even the most diligent business owner to be everywhere at one time. As a result, something as seemingly insignificant as the air employees are breathing is easily overlooked. Ignoring Indoor Air Quality (IAQ), however, frequently proves to be a costly and unnecessary mistake that no business owner can afford to make.

The Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) of a business’s workplace, according to the Federation of European Heating and Air-conditioning Associations, is characterized by all the physical, mechanical, and chemical characteristics of indoor air having an impact on the human being.” A business with poor IAQ may be exposing employees to microbial contaminants including bacteria and mold; chemicals such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and radon; and other allergens. The Environmental Protection Agency labels “environmental tobacco smoke, asbestos from insulating and fire-retardant building supplies,  formaldehyde from pressed wood products, paints, adhesives, copying machines, and photography and print shops, biological contaminants from dirty ventilation systems or water-damaged walls, ceilings, and carpets, and pesticides from pest management practices” as common contributors to unhealthy IAQ.

While these contaminants are clearly adverse to the health of employees, a busy CEO may consider the risks to be minor and may choose to make an investigation of IAQ a low priority. Unfortunately, this attitude can often be harmful to employees. According to the EPA, employees can be affected by poor IAQ with only one exposure to some contaminants. Exposure can cause a number of short term symptoms and illnesses, such as “dry or burning mucous membranes in the nose, eyes, and throat; sneezing; stuffy or runny nose; fatigue or lethargy; headache; dizziness; nausea; irritability and forgetfulness.” These symptoms are clearly not conducive to a productive workplace.

Long term symptoms, however, can have a far greater impact than a dip in productivity. Extended exposure to contaminants of Indoor Air Quality can cause respiratory disease, heart disease, and cancer. For example, the EPA states that radon, a known carcinogen, is “in the indoor air of buildings of all kinds.” They estimate that 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year in the United States are radon related. In fact, radon is surpassed only by smoking as the leading cause of lung cancer in America. Other IAQ contaminants such as asbestos and carbon monoxide can also cause long-term illnesses. Diseases caused by exposure to asbestos (including lung cancer mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the chest and the abdominal cavity; and asbestosis, in which the lungs become scarred with fibrous tissue) can often take as long as 20 or 30 years to manifest. Carbon monoxide exposure in moderate concentrations can cause angina, impaired vision, and reduced brain function. Due to the severity of these illnesses, a CEO cannot responsibly ignore the Indoor Air Quality of his or her business.

Proper attention to Indoor Air Quality is important to more than just employee health. By giving IAQ the care it deserves, a CEO can also ensure a strong and healthy bottom line. William J. Fisk of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California argues in a 2000 study that addressing IAQ can result directly in economic benefits. He cites reductions in healthcare costs, sick leave, and poor performance of workers as the most notable ways that better IAQ can have economic gains. Poor IAQ causes an increase in the four most common respiratory illnesses (common cold, influenza, pneumonia, and bronchitis), which are the cause of about 176 million days lost from work a year, as well as another 121 million work days of restricted activity and lessened productivity. Fisk notes that the cost of this lost work and the annual healthcare costs of upper and lower respiratory tract infections add up to a staggering $70 billion dollars per year in lost revenues for American businesses.

While a CEO may find the Indoor Air Quality of the office easy to overlook, the risk of disease and cancer in employees and the billions of dollars lost annually are hard to ignore. An experienced IAQ expert can provide the necessary IAQ assessments to evaluate precisely where a facility can make economically beneficial improvements and can take the necessary steps to implement and maintain those modifications.

The process of properly identifying what changes need to be made to improve IAQ can be complicated, making an experienced and properly trained IAQ expert even more practical. For most IAQ experts, the first step will be getting to the bottom of any symptoms employees are presenting. Whether or not the IAQ consultation was initiated by employee complaints, a certified industrial hygienist or other IAQ consultant will typically interview employees to discern which, if any, symptoms could have been caused by an IAQ issue.

After identifying the symptoms common among employees, an IAQ expert will isolate a probable cause. According to the EPA, there are a few common facility problems which result in poor IAQ. Indoor pollution sources are the primary cause, since they release harmful gases or particles into the air. Inadequate or inefficient ventilation can also cause higher levels of indoor pollutants by not allowing the diffusion of indoor pollutants or the circulation of fresh outdoor air. Poor temperature and humidity regulation can also cause higher concentrations of some pollutants. Once identified, an IAQ expert will propose solutions to these problems which may include increasing ventilation, reducing air recirculation, improving filtration, disinfecting the air of ultraviolent contamination, reducing office sharing, or reducing occupant density. An experienced IAQ consultant can provide advice on how to make these facility modifications as inexpensively as possible, which can ultimately drive an increase in profits. In Fisk’s 2000 study, he estimates that such improvements in building design can create a 9-20% reduction in cases of the common cold, translating into 16-37 million fewer cases annually in the U.S. This annual reduction could save businesses as much as $14 billion each year. Improved health generally increases worker productivity, which ultimately stimulates a company’s bottom line. Fisk estimates that US companies could save a combined $160 billion a year by improving indoor air quality regulations and standards.

Not all IAQ problems, however, are easily fixed. Some require more elaborate and complicated modifications to facilities which, when handled inefficiently, can add up to big costs for businesses. When this is the case, it is more important than ever to have the assistance of an IAQ expert.  An IAQ expert can lay out the options available for more costly projects – such as replacing a facility’s HVAC system – and act as a facilitator for the necessary changes. By having a qualified IAQ professional organize and oversee the facility improvement, a CEO can ensure that a business’s office space will provide the healthiest possible indoor environment at the lowest price.

With today’s business atmosphere as competitive as it is, no business can afford to ignore problems that are potentially cutting deep into its bottom line. Many companies have chosen to ignore or avoid dealing with the Indoor Air Quality of their facilities, to the risk and detriment of their employees and their profits. With the help of the right IAQ expert, however, handling the issue of Indoor Air Quality can be simple, cost effective, and ultimately profitable. Healthy Indoor Air Quality, when properly assessed and managed, can provide a workplace where both employees and profits are able to flourish and grow.

Scott H. Lawson M.S., author of Clearing the Air about Indoor Air Quality: How an Indoor Air Quality review can make your business healthier and more profitable, is the President of The Scott Lawson Companies (www.slgl.com) located in Concord, NH.  He can be reached at (603) 228-3610 or at scott@slgl.com.