The health threats posed by physical contact with contaminated soil or groundwater are well known. But increasingly, state and federal regulators are recognizing that harmful vapors from such contamination can be drawn into nearby buildings and pose a threat to the occupants. Known as soil vapor intrusion, this threat can come from undiscovered contamination beneath a building, or even from the remnants of previously remediated soil or groundwater.
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.
While pollutants commonly found in door 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.
Pollen, dust, fungi, industrial pollutants, and general vehicle exhaust are common outdoor sources of indoor air pollution. Other sources include exhaust from vehicles on nearby roads or in parking lots or garages, loading docks, odors from dumpsters, unsanitary debris near outdoor air intakes, and cigarette smoke from office workers now required in most cities to take their cigarette breaks outside of building entrances. Another source is exhaust from the building itself or from neighboring buildings that is re-entrained, or drawn back into the building.
Significant among office building activities are the frequent redecorating, remodeling and repair activities undertaken by new commercial tenants that often have very different spatial and other business needs from those of the prior tenant. These activities and objects lead to emissions from new furnishings; dust and fibers from demolition, including lead and asbestos; odors and volatile organic and inorganic compounds from paint, caulk, adhesives, and microbiological agents released from demolition or remodeling activities.