Indoor Air Quality–A Modern Occupational Health Issue

Modern building construction and operations have come a long way since the first energy crisis of the 1970's. Both occupant comfort and cost-effective management practices have improved compared to ages past. Yet while building construction has proven the ability keep warm or cool air sealed in and thereby reduce operating costs of Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems, the same energy-efficient design has had a paradoxical effect on select human health concerns. Additionally, people spend more and more time than ever indoors according to the American Lung Association. These two facts of modern life have brought on a growing phenomenon of ‘Sick Building Syndrome’ and ‘Building –Related Illness.’ (BRIs)

One of the downsides of energy management in the nature of building construction is to keep contaminants that originate in building operations or are brought in by occupants sealed in along with the warm or cool air. Symptoms that make these contaminants suspect sources include anything from upper-respiratory infections and itchy, watery eyes to asthma. Known causes include mold mycotoxins, bacteria and other organic particulates. These biological etiologies are encouraged to grow, using the building materials and environments for food, moisture and required temperature. Other sources of certain BRIs can be found in the building materials themselves. These include asbestos, silica dust or chemicals and other materials used in the operations taking place in the building.

The increase in BRIs is even more pronounced when natural or man-made disasters strike and create conditions for accelerated growth or airborne dispersal of contaminants. Mold follows flooding, wildfires beget distributions of any manner of particulates, and any event which causes structural damage can increase the concentrations of asbestos or particulates from other building materials in the air being breathed by building occupants. Even a simple electrical power outage can render HVAC systems all but useless for several days, creating perfect environments for growth of biological contaminants.

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