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Indoor Air Quality Archives

Asbestos - A Hazardous Office Building Material

Asbestos is a ubiquitous element of office building materials. The name is given to a number of naturally occurring, fibrous silicate minerals mined for their useful properties such as acoustic insulation, thermal insulation, chemical and thermal stability, and high tensile strength. Asbestos was commonly used as an acoustic insulator, thermal insulation, fire proofing and in other building materials. Many products are still in use today that contain asbestos. Though asbestos pipe insulation was used in homes and schools, asbestos probably has more applications in office buildings. Asbestos is made up of microscopic bundles of fibers that may become airborne when asbestos-containing materials (ACM) are damaged or disturbed. When these fibers get into the air they may be inhaled into the lungs, where they can cause significant health problems.

Asbestos - A Hazardous Office Building Material

Asbestos is a ubiquitous element of office building materials. The name is given to a number of naturally occurring, fibrous silicate minerals mined for their useful properties such as acoustic insulation, thermal insulation, chemical and thermal stability, and high tensile strength. Asbestos was commonly used as an acoustic insulator, thermal insulation, fire proofing and in other building materials. Many products are still in use today that contain asbestos. Though asbestos pipe insulation was used in homes and schools, asbestos probably has more applications in office buildings. Asbestos is made up of microscopic bundles of fibers that may become airborne when asbestos-containing materials (ACM) are damaged or disturbed. When these fibers get into the air they may be inhaled into the lungs, where they can cause significant health problems.

Responsibility for Soil Vapor Intrusion Mitigation

So, who is responsible for mitigating this soil vapor intrusion? The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) describes the conditions under which the state will conduct the vapor intrusion evaluations and the order in which the sites will be assessed. If exposures represent a concern due to indoor sources, then the state will provide guidance to the property owner and/or tenant on ways to reduce their exposure. If exposures represent a concern due to outdoor sources, then DEC will decide who is responsible for further investigation and any necessary remediation. Depending upon the outdoor source, this responsibility may or may not fall upon the party conducting the soil vapor intrusion investigation.

New York State Guidance on Soil Vapor Intrusion

Today we continue our discussion on soil vapor intrusion. Some states like New York have developed detailed vapor intrusion guidance of their own. New York's guidance explicitly raises concerns about reliance on modeling and exterior soil vapor screening and encourages indoor and sub-slab sampling where there is a reason to believe that vapor intrusion may occur. A joint strategy between the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the New York State Department of Health (DOH) has recently been developed to evaluate vapor intrusion pathways at all of the remedial sites in New York. The goal of the policy and guidance documents is to conduct soil vapor intrusion evaluations as efficiently and effectively as possible at all such sites. DEC's strategy is entitled "Evaluating the Potential for Soil Vapor Intrusion at Past, Present, and Future Sites."

Soil Gas Vapor in the Workplace

If worker right-to-know laws are intended to require employers to inform their employees of the specific hazards based on specific chemicals to which their employees are exposed in the workplace, soil gas vapor regulation is intended to fill a significant gap, namely the wide range of pollutants that employers typically cannot know about and protect employees from. Soil gas vapor regulation is designed to set forth remedial steps that are required to be taken by property owners (who may or may not be the office building employers) in the face of uncontrollable and sometimes unknown sources of contamination in groundwater and soil beneath the building.

Building Related Illnesses

Building-related illnesses are those for which there is a clinically defined illness of known etiology. These include infections such as legionellosis and allergic reactions such as hypersensitivity diseases and are often documented by physical signs and laboratory findings. Building-related illnesses are uncommon and are more serious in prognosis than mere discomfort. Physician diagnosis by clinical investigation of symptoms is the usual means of recognizing them. These illnesses can have a long latent (or asymptomatic) period after exposure begins before symptoms are experienced, similar to lung cancer after indoor radon exposure. Other categories of building-related illnesses, however, are associated with an immediate appearance of symptoms after exposure. They include toxic illness such as carbon monoxide poisoning; infectious diseases such as Legionella or Legionnaires' disease; and allergic disease such as asthma, hay fever, or hypersensitivity pneumonitis.

Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) in Office Buildings: Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) Part II

Solutions to Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) usually include combinations of the following. First, pollutant source removal or modification is an effective approach to resolving an IAQ problem when sources are known and control is feasible. Examples include routine cleaning and replacement of air filters in HVAC systems; replacement of water-stained ceiling tile and carpeting; venting contaminant source emissions to the outdoors; storage and use of paints, adhesives, solvents, and pesticides in well-ventilated areas, use of these pollutant sources during periods of non-occupancy; and allowing time for building materials in new or remodeled areas to off-gas pollutants before occupancy. Several of these options may be exercised at one time. Second, increasing ventilation rates and air distribution can often be a cost-effective means of reducing indoor pollutant levels. HVAC systems should be designed, at a minimum, to meet ventilation standards in local building codes. However, many systems are not operated or maintained to ensure that these design ventilation rates are provided. In many buildings, IAQ can be improved by operating the HVAC system to at least its design standard, and to ASHRAE Standard 62-1989 if possible. Third, when there are strong pollutant sources, local exhaust ventilation may be appropriate to remove contaminated air directly from the building. Local exhaust ventilation is particularly recommended to remove pollutants that accumulate in specific areas such as rest rooms, copy rooms and printing facilities.

Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) Part I: Causes of SBS

Employee complaints can be due to two types of building problems: Sick Building Syndrome (SBS), and building-related illnesses. SBS is used to describe situations in which building occupants experience acute health effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness can be identified. SBS is associated with complaints of discomfort including headache, nausea and dizziness; eye, nose, throat, and respiratory irritation; coughing; difficulty concentrating; sensitivity to odors; muscle pain; and fatigue. The specific causes of the symptoms are often not known but sometimes are attributed to the effects of a combination of substances or individual susceptibility to low concentrations of contaminants. Symptoms of SBS are associated with periods of occupancy and often disappear after the worker leaves the worksite. 

Health Effects from Indoor Air Pollutants

While pollutants commonly found in indoor air are responsible for many harmful effects, there is considerable uncertainty about what concentrations or periods of exposure are necessary to produce specific health problems. People also react very differently to exposure to indoor air pollutants. Comprehensive worker protections provided pursuant to OSHA, discussed below, are not considered particularly stringent. Where there have been competing regimes, whether by EPA or state agencies, these agencies have generally set standards that are occasionally orders of magnitude more stringent than those set by OSHA. 

Mechanisms by which outdoor air becomes part of the indoor air environment

In a process known as infiltration, outdoor air flows into the building through openings, joints, cracks in walls, floors, ceilings, and around windows and doors. In natural ventilation, air moves through opened windows and doors. Air movement associated with infiltration and natural ventilation is caused by air temperature differences between indoors and outdoors and by wind. The rate at which outdoor air replaces indoor air is known as the air exchange rate. When there is little infiltration, natural ventilation, or mechanical ventilation, the air exchange rate is low and indoor pollutant levels can accumulate to levels that can pose health and comfort problems. 

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