Indoor Air Quality

From time to time, almost everyone has had a runny or dry nose, itchy skin, dry eyes, or a headache. Many of us suffer from allergies, or even sensitivities to different pollutants. All of us are bothered by the occasional nasty or irritating odors generated by processes.

Not every twitch, sneeze, pain or disease is caused by indoor air pollutants. Some individuals are oversensitive to stimulants such as perfumes, vehicle exhaust, dust and other normal everyday pollutants that we all deal with at work or at home.

Odor calls are usually our worst call of the day. Odors can be caused by an activity in the facility or blocks away from the building. We have had calls for mothballs, carpet cleaning chemicals, glues and mastics, burning light ballasts, vehicle exhaust, welding and cutting, natural gas, chemical releases, and many more that a source could never be determined before they just disappeared. We will exhaust every possible avenue to find the source of an irritating odor. Even when we can identify the source, it is not always possible to stop the generation of the odors. Coal tar roofing on another building, construction sites that do not fall under University control, painting with non-toxic paints, and other similar situations may cause individuals to be uncomfortable for a short time.

Temperature and humidity play a large role in comfort and are often lumped into air quality. As a rule of thumb, indoor air temperature, which fluctuates up and down by more than 20 degrees from the best working temperature of 70 degrees, needs to be addressed. It is important when researching indoor air complaints to make a log of the temperature and relative humidity so that a complete picture can be developed.

Humidity that is too low can allow dust and particles to stay suspended in the air for a long time. Instead of falling out and being dust on your desk, they stay in your breathing zone. This can set up an irritation in your nose and eyes. When occupying an area with low relative humidity, the moisture in your body is being pulled into the room air. This can make you feel cold, dry and cause your eyes to be irritated and dry. Relative humidity during the winter months is difficult to maintain within comfort levels, both at work and at home. Too much humidity in the air can also make us very uncomfortable. In the summer months our air conditioner units pull excess moisture from the air to keep humidity levels within the comfort range.

Building construction materials are much more regulated now than in past years. The use of certain chemicals to process building materials has been banned. Greater care is used with insulations such as fiberglass, and all asbestos insulating material was banned in the 1980s.

Mastics, floor covers and carpet can still give off odors and fumes when installed. With carpet and other coverings this process is called “off gassing”. New procedures are being developed to shorten the period after installation for this process.

Chemicals still play an important part in our everyday lives. We use chemicals at home, at work, and even at play. Simple chalk can create a dust which can irritate the lining of the nose and throat. Spills and releases, even non-toxic materials, can create signs of illness and respiratory distress. Carbon monoxide has been called the silent killer. It can be generated with any fossil fuel burning equipment. The health effects are noticeable but there is no odor or color to carbon monoxide. We often can pick up the odor of other materials, which helps us trace the source of health problems. In the residence halls where gas fired appliances are being used, carbon monoxide monitors have been installed.

Pepper gas and other gases used for security have created some serious calls when accidentally released. People close to the release suddenly start coughing and choking. They have no sense of the smell of the released gas. When responding to these calls we often get a whiff of the odor on the fringe areas of the affected space.

Mold has become a major issue in the Akron area. Molds have always been around but we are looking at the different health effects on all age groups of people in a new light. Once thought to trigger allergy problems, now certain molds have been linked to serious illness in children and individuals with weakened immune systems. We investigate all calls concerning mold. Most of the time stopping the source of the mold growth and treating the area will work to stop the problem. In some cases, we need to remove the building materials with the mold growth and replace the entire section. It all depends on the type of mold. We have several consultants and laboratories that can assist with mold problems.

Outdoor, or what is commonly referred to, as “fresh air”, may not always be fresh, especially in an urban setting. Filtering devices used on air intakes are about 30% efficient. The inside of some ducts are lined to reduce noise and may also break down, spitting black spots of dust like particles on surfaces.

Whatever your concern may be, please fill out a Safety Concern Form and return it to us.

Please be prepared to furnish medical documentation if necessary and even answer some personal questions. Health complaints, which may appear to be linked to indoor air quality, often are also associated with stress and other emotional and physical problems. We will keep your information confidential but, to do a complete investigation, we need to look at everything possibly involved.

Please be advised that air samples, or testing the air, is not a reality in environmental activities. We must have some idea of what we are testing for before any air samples will confirm or deny the existence of that material. Often we wish that there was a magical test that would tell us everything we wanted to know from a sample of air, but all samples are a snapshot in time. They can only provide us with information on a specific subject at a specific time. We will do whatever is reasonable to provide everyone with recommendations and data to determine if a problem exists. Keep in mind that what bothers one person may be refreshing to someone else. An example is paint or new carpet. Some of us hate the smell and others love it! We are committed to provide a safe working environment and indoor air quality will continue to be an issue for many years to come.