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Creating a Healthy Working Environment: Indoor Air Quality Explained


What is Indoor Air Quality and Why It is Important

Imagine the air you breathe indoors goes on a journey. It starts fresh, perhaps breezing through an open window. But as it circulates within your home or office, it can encounter a multitude of hidden enemies. Everyday activities like cooking, cleaning, and even simply occupying a space can contribute to a gradual decline in air quality. Dust mites, mould spores, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted from building materials and furnishings can become unwelcome passengers on this journey. 


This article chronicles the surprising transformation of once-fresh air into stale, potentially hazardous air. More importantly, it empowers you to take back control. We'll explore simple yet effective strategies to improve your indoor air quality, ensuring your air journey ends in a revitalizing breath of fresh air, every single time. 



Importance of Indoor Air Quality


Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) 

Imagine a healthy environment where you can take a deep, refreshing breath. That's the power of good Indoor Air Quality (IAQ). Since we spend about 90% of our time indoors, IAQ significantly impacts our health and comfort. 

However, indoor air can harbor pollutants that pose health risks for everyone, but especially for children, the elderly, and those with pre-existing health conditions. Short-term effects include irritation, but long-term exposure can lead to serious illnesses like heart disease and cancer. Underscoring the severity, the World Health Organization estimates a staggering 3.8 million deaths happen annually due to indoor air pollution from unsafe cooking methods. 

Common symptoms caused by poor IAQ include the following: 


  • Dryness and irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and skin 

  • Headache 

  • Fatigue 

  • Shortness of breath 

  • Hypersensitivity and allergies 

  • Sinus congestion 

  • Coughing and sneezing 

  • Dizziness 




Indoor Air Quality for Workplaces


Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) for Workplaces 

Indoor air quality, or IAQ, isn't just about the air itself. It's a recipe influenced by various ingredients: building materials, furniture, activities happening inside, the climate, and even the people who occupy the space. According to the Canadian Committee on Indoor Air Quality and Buildings, a healthy indoor environment is essential for our well-being, promoting productivity and overall comfort. 

Examples of common indoor air contaminants and their main sources include: 


  • Carbon dioxide (CO2) from building occupants and combustion of fuels such as gas and oil furnaces and heaters. 

  • Carbon monoxide (CO) from vehicle exhaust brought into the building by air intakes. 

  • Dust, fibreglass, asbestos, gases, including formaldehyde from building materials. 

  • Vapours, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) (ie. copying and printing machines, computers, carpets, furnishings, cleansers and disinfectants, solvents, pesticides, disinfectants, glues, caulking, paints, etc.) 

  • Dust mites (ie. carpets, fabric, foam chair cushions.) 

  • Microbial contaminants, fungi, moulds, bacteria (ie. damp areas, wet /damp materials, stagnant water, condensate drain pans, etc.) 

  • Radon: a colourless, odourless gas from decaying radioactive elements in soil that can seep into buildings through cracks. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that radon exposure causes roughly 21,000 lung cancer deaths annually in the United States. 

  • Ozone (ie. from photocopiers, electric motors, electrostatic air cleaners.) 

  • Miscellaneous sources such as tobacco smoke, perfume, body odour, food, etc. 


A healthy work environment must have good IAQ, ensuring the air is free from harmful elements like chemicals, dust, and unpleasant odours. In addition, it also needs to have comfortable temperature, humidity, and proper air circulation, with sufficient fresh air coming in from outdoors. Maintaining this requires good sanitation, addressing water issues promptly, and a joint effort from building staff and the people who work there. 


Laws/Guidelines for IAQ in Non-Industrial Workplaces 

As of today, Canada may not have specific laws for IAQ in non-industrial workplaces in every jurisdiction. However, a "general duty clause" exists in all occupational health and safety regulations. This means employers are legally obligated to provide a safe and healthy work environment, including good air quality for their employees. 

Several organizations offer helpful IAQ guidelines. The Government of Canada itself has publications on air quality, including Health Canada's indoor air reference limits (IARLs). Furthermore, some recommend keeping contaminants below one-tenth of their listed occupational exposure limit (OEL). Building codes in Canada often incorporate IAQ into design and operation standards and typically reference the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) Standard 62.1 (or previous versions) for ventilation and acceptable IAQ, or other approved standards. 



How to improve Indoor Air Quality

Improving Your Indoor Environment 

Investigate 

Improving your IAQ starts with a thorough investigation to find and remove the sources of air pollutants. The steps taken may vary depending on your situation. Here are some essential steps you should include in your investigation strategy: 


  • Walk-Through Inspection: Visually inspect your home for potential issues that could be affecting air quality. 

  • Analyze Complaints: Look for patterns in occupant concerns. When and where do symptoms seem most evident? 

  • Ventilation System Check: Ensure your ventilation system is operating efficiently. Is fresh air flowing properly? Do filters need cleaning or replacement? 

  • Identify Potential Sources: Be on the lookout for sources of pollutants, such as recent renovations, off-gassing furniture, or mold growth. 

  • Consider Contributing Factors: Consider if other factors, like noise, temperature, or lighting, might be impacting well-being. 

  • Occupant Survey: Gather information through a survey to identify potential work sources and occupant experiences. 

  • Professional Assistance: Consider seeking help from a qualified professional for air testing or in-depth analysis. 



Investigation for Indoor Air Quality Improvement


Take Action 

  • Let the Fresh Air In: Open windows and doors when weather permits to naturally ventilate your home. Run exhaust fans in the kitchen and bathroom while using them. 

  • Upgrade Your Filtration: Invest in a high-efficiency air filter for your HVAC system. For additional air purification, consider a portable air cleaner that doesn't emit ozone. 

  • Combat Moisture Buildup: Prevent mold growth by controlling humidity. Fix water leaks and aim for a humidity level between 30-50%. Use ventilation or a dehumidifier if necessary. 

  • Safety Always Comes First: Install and regularly inspect carbon monoxide and smoke alarms to ensure your home is safe. 

  • Declutter and Deep Clean: Reduce dust, allergens, and potential pest havens by decluttering regularly. Wipe down surfaces with a damp rag and vacuum frequently. 




How to improve indoor air quality


Vent Your Combustion Appliances 

  • Prioritize Proper Venting: Always vent all combustion appliances, like heaters, stoves, and dryers, to the outside. These appliances can release harmful pollutants that can affect your health if not vented properly. 

  • Annual Maintenance and Safety Checks: Schedule annual inspections for combustion appliances like wood heaters and gas stoves. Following manufacturer instructions ensures safe operation and minimizes the risk of dangerous carbon monoxide emissions from malfunctioning appliances. 

  • Safe Heating and Power Solutions: Never use your cooking stove for heating. Using fuel-powered generators indoors, even during power outages, is dangerous. Explore safer alternatives. 



consider outdoor air quality


Consider Outdoor Air Quality 

  • Mind the Outdoor Air: Outdoor air pollution can find its way indoors. Keep yourself informed about local air quality. 

  • Plan for Wildfires: Wildfires can significantly impact air quality. Consider purchasing air purifiers and extra filters before wildfire season starts. 



reduce chemical pollution indoors for indoor air quality


Reduce Chemical Pollution Indoors 

  • Minimize the use of cleaners, perfumes, pesticides, and other household chemicals indoors. These products can release harmful pollutants into the air. 

  • Opt for less toxic cleaning solutions like mild soap and water whenever possible. Look for products with the EPA's Safer Choice label, indicating lower toxicity. 

  • Always follow product label instructions carefully. Never mix chemicals, as this can create dangerous fumes. Ensure proper ventilation when painting, cleaning, sanitizing, or disinfecting your home. 

  • Consider non-chemical pest management methods like integrated pest management whenever possible. Avoid using harsh pesticide sprays and foggers. 

  • Test for lead. Your building might contain lead-based paint if it was built before 1960. If built between 1960 and 1990, the exterior may contain lead-based paint. 

  • Test for radon. Radon exposure is the number one cause of lung cancer in non-smokers. 


 

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