Breathe Easy: A Guide to Improving Indoor Air Quality for a Safer, Healthier Living Space
Poor indoor air quality can have negative effects on human health.
- By Christian Avedon
- Mar 24, 2023
Indoor air quality (IAQ) is an often overlooked but critical aspect of building safety and health for occupants. Poor IAQ can result in a range of health problems, from headaches and allergies to serious respiratory illnesses. With people spending a significant amount of time indoors, ensuring that the air they breathe is clean and safe is essential.
This article will discuss the importance of IAQ, the factors affecting IAQ, steps to improve it and the regulations and standards in place to protect building occupants.
Importance of IAQ for Building Occupants
IAQ is crucial for the well-being of building occupants. Poor IAQ can have serious consequences, including reduced productivity, increased stress levels and even long-term health effects.
The air we breathe affects nearly every aspect of life for those who live and work in a building, from physical and mental health to comfort and efficiency while at work or studying. Poor IAQ can exacerbate allergies and asthma; lead to headaches and fatigue; cause respiratory problems, such as chest tightness or difficulty breathing; and create skin irritation or an increased risk of infection due to contaminants in the air. In extreme cases, exposure to certain pollutants can lead to chronic health conditions such as cancer or birth defects. Poor IAQ can also make concentrating on tasks difficult, decreasing productivity in the workplace or classroom environment. This issue is especially important in public buildings where many people are simultaneously exposed to potentially hazardous air pollutants.
Definition of IAQ
Indoor air quality is a term used to refer to the air quality within and around buildings, with a particular emphasis on how it affects the health and comfort of their occupants. Building owners should take measures to ensure that all IAQ meets suitable standards, which demands an awareness of all factors that influence the overall IAQ—from temperature and humidity levels to airborne particles such as dust mites or pollen, chemicals, gases and biological contaminants like mold or bacteria.
To guarantee healthier indoor environments for everyone inhabiting the building, building managers should implement a combination of strategies: adequate ventilation, proper filtration systems, decreased usage of chemical-based products and regular maintenance of electrical devices.
The Dangers of Poor Air Quality
Poor air quality can have serious consequences for our health and the environment. Air pollutants, including ozone, nitrogen dioxide, lead, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter, can cause a range of health problems, from respiratory illnesses such as asthma and bronchitis to more severe conditions like cancer and heart disease. The effects of poor air quality are far-reaching and have long-term implications for both human health and the environment.
The Current State of IAQ in Buildings
The current state of IAQ in buildings is a cause for concern. Despite building design and technology advancements, many buildings—particularly older ones—still suffer from poor air quality. Why? IAQ concerns plague many buildings due to various factors like inadequate ventilation, the use of harsh chemicals in cleaning and maintenance, the presence of mold and bacteria and the emission of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from building materials and furnishings. Additionally, the increased use of energy-efficient building designs has led to tighter building envelopes, which can reduce the amount of fresh air entering buildings and increase the concentration of indoor air pollutants.
As a result, indoor air can be two to five times more polluted than outdoor air, posing significant health risks to building occupants. Building owners and managers must take action to improve IAQ and ultimately protect the health and comfort of those who inhabit their buildings.
Factors Affecting IAQ
Air pollution sources. Air pollution sources that can affect IAQ include:
- Combustion from heating systems, stoves and furnaces burning fuel oil, wood or other organic materials
- Asbestos fibers from deteriorating insulation
- Cleaning supplies and aerosol sprays
- Outgassing of VOCs from carpets, furniture and paint
- Formaldehyde from pressed wood products
- Radon gas emitted by building materials such as concrete and cinder block
- Dust mites and mold
Some of these pollutants originate indoors while others are tracked in from outdoors. Poor ventilation can cause higher levels of air pollution inside a building compared to outside, so it is crucial to ensure adequate airflow through your building.
Ventilation systems. Ventilation systems play a crucial role in maintaining IAQ. Poorly designed or maintained ventilation systems can negatively impact IAQ by circulating contaminated air, recirculating stale air or failing to provide enough fresh air to dilute indoor air pollutants. Some of the specific ventilation system issues affecting IAQ include:
Inadequate ventilation. If a building's ventilation system is not designed to provide adequate fresh air, indoor air pollutants can build up, leading to poor air quality.
Poor air distribution. Improper ventilation system design or installation can lead to uneven air distribution, which can cause some areas to have higher levels of pollutants than others.
Dirty filters. Filters in the ventilation system can become clogged with dust and other pollutants, reducing their efficiency and contaminating the indoor air.
Leaks. Leaks in the ductwork or ventilation system can draw in outdoor air pollutants, negatively impacting IAQ.
Poor maintenance. Lack of maintenance can cause the ventilation system to break down, reducing its ability to filter and circulate fresh air and potentially increasing the concentration of indoor air pollutants.
Contaminants in the building. Contaminants like mold, dust and bacteria can have significant impacts on IAQ. Here are several examples.
Mold. Mold can grow in damp and humid environments and produce allergens, irritants and potentially toxic substances that can impact IAQ. Inhaling mold spores can cause respiratory problems and other health issues.
Dust. Dust can contain a variety of harmful particles, including pet dander, pollen and chemical pollutants. Dust can cause respiratory problems and other health issues, especially for those with allergies or respiratory conditions.
Bacteria. Bacteria can cause a range of health problems, from minor illnesses to more serious infections. Bacteria can grow in moist environments and spread through the air, on surfaces or through contact with contaminated water. Some bacteria can also produce harmful substances, such as toxins, impacting IAQ.
Dust mites. Dust mites are tiny insects that feed on dead skin cells and other organic matter. They are commonly found in indoor environments and can cause respiratory problems, especially for those with allergies or asthma. Dust mites can also trigger asthma attacks and exacerbate other respiratory conditions.
VOCs. VOCs are chemicals released from certain building materials, furnishings and other products. They can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, dizziness and other health problems and can also contribute to indoor air pollution.
Radon. Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that can seep into buildings from the soil. Long-term exposure to radon can increase the risk of lung cancer and contribute to indoor air pollution.
Asbestos. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral commonly used in building materials in the past. It can release fibers into the air when disturbed, posing a health risk if inhaled.
Lead. Lead is a toxic metal found in some building materials, as well as in lead-based paint. Lead can cause various health problems, including developmental problems in children and neurological problems in adults.
Carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas produced by the incomplete burning of fossil fuels. It can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea and other symptoms and can be lethal in high concentrations.
Formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is a chemical used in a variety of products, including building materials, furniture and household goods. It can cause respiratory problems, eye and nose irritation and other health problems.
These are just a few examples of the many contaminants that can impact IAQ. Building owners and managers should be aware of these and other contaminants and take steps to minimize their presence in indoor environments to ensure healthy air quality for all building occupants.
Steps for Improving IAQ
There are several steps that building owners and managers can take to improve IAQ.
Regular cleaning and maintenance. Regular cleaning and maintenance of HVAC systems, carpets, upholstery and other surfaces can help to reduce the buildup of dust, mold and other pollutants. Also consider regularly replacing air filters, cleaning ducts and vents and using cleaning products specifically designed to eliminate indoor air pollutants.
Proper ventilation and filtration systems. Proper ventilation and filtration systems can help to remove indoor air pollutants and bring fresh air into the building. Building owners and managers should ensure these systems function properly and upgrade or replace them if necessary.
Use of air-purifying technologies. There are many air-purifying technologies available on the market, such as air filters, air purifiers and air ionizers, which can help to remove indoor air pollutants. Building owners and managers can consider installing these technologies in areas where air quality is a concern.
Reducing indoor air pollution sources. Building owners and managers can reduce indoor air pollution sources by making changes to the building materials, furnishings and products used in the building. For example, they can choose building materials that are low in VOCs and select furniture and products free of harmful chemicals.
Increasing ventilation. Improving ventilation in a building can help to reduce indoor air pollutants and bring fresh air into the building. Building owners and managers can consider installing ventilation systems or simply opening windows and doors more frequently to improve airflow.
These are some of the steps that building owners and managers can take to improve IAQ. It is important to implement a combination of these steps to achieve the best results and to regularly monitor IAQ to ensure it remains healthy and safe for building occupants.
Government Regulations and Standards for IAQ
In North America, there are several key government regulations and standards for IAQ.
EPA's IAQ Tools for Schools program. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools program provides guidelines and resources for schools to improve IAQ and prevent health problems associated with poor IAQ.
ASHRAE standards. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers sets standards for IAQ, ventilation and temperature control in buildings. These standards help ensure that buildings are designed and operated in a way that promotes healthy indoor air.
OSHA Indoor Air Quality Standard. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has established IAQ standards to protect workers from exposure to hazardous air pollutants in the workplace.
The Clean Air Act. The Clean Air Act is a federal law regulating air emissions from stationary and mobile sources in the U.S. The act requires the EPA to set and enforce standards for air pollutants, including indoor air pollutants, to protect public health and the environment.
Canada's National Building Code. Canada's National Building Code sets minimum standards for IAQ in new buildings, including requirements for ventilation, heating, cooling and lighting.
Canada's IAQ Standards. Health Canada has established IAQ standards for a number of pollutants, including radon, carbon monoxide and lead, to protect public health.
Building owners and managers should familiarize themselves with these regulations and standards and any other requirements for their area and comply with them to ensure that their buildings have healthy indoor air.
Destratification Fans can be Part of the Solution for IAQ
Destratification fans can play an important role in improving IAQ. These fans are designed to mix and circulate air within a building, effectively reducing stratification, the tendency for warm air to rise to the ceiling and cold air to sink to the floor. By breaking up this temperature separation, destratification fans can help distribute conditioned air more evenly throughout a building, resulting in improved IAQ.
Here are some of the ways destratification fans can improve IAQ.
Reducing airborne pollutants. By circulating air throughout a building, destratification fans can help reduce the concentration of pollutants that can accumulate in certain areas, such as near the floor or in corners.
Improving ventilation. By increasing air circulation, destratification fans can help improve ventilation, which can be especially important in buildings with poor natural ventilation or HVAC systems that are not working effectively.
Reducing condensation levels. Destratification fans can also help reduce surface condensation, minimizing the risk of mold growth and other IAQ problems associated with high humidity.
Improving energy efficiency. By reducing the need for heating and cooling in certain areas of a building, destratification fans can help to improve energy efficiency, reducing energy costs and reducing the building's carbon footprint.
Incorporating germ-reducing technologies for enhanced IAQ. Some companies offer the ability to add modules that help reduce molds, bacteria, viruses and other pathogens. Some examples of the different technologies available are:
- Needlepoint bipolar ionization
- Ultraviolet light
Building owners and managers concerned about IAQ should consider incorporating destratification fans into their ventilation and air quality strategies.
In conclusion, IAQ is a critical component of health and comfort in any enclosed or partially enclosed space, including homes, offices, schools, hospitals and commercial buildings. Poor IAQ can negatively impact human health and create an uncomfortable environment for those who inhabit it. Building owners and managers must understand the factors affecting IAQ and take steps to improve it to maintain acceptable IAQ levels.
Destratification fans can improve IAQ by promoting better air circulation and reducing indoor air pollutants. By mixing and circulating air within a building, destratification fans can help to reduce stratification, distribute conditioned air more evenly, reduce airborne pollutants, improve ventilation, reduce humidity levels and improve energy efficiency.
In summary, maintaining acceptable IAQ levels is crucial for the health and comfort of building occupants. Building owners and managers should improve IAQ through proper ventilation, air-purifying technologies and implementing government regulations and standards. The benefits of improving IAQ include better health, increased comfort, improved energy efficiency and reduced energy costs. Ongoing monitoring and improvement efforts are also essential in ensuring that IAQ remains acceptable.
About the Author
Christian Avedon is the Director of Sales & Marketing of Airius, a Colorado-based technology company focused on developing products that manage indoor air quality. Over the past 12 years, he has successfully assisted thousands of customers in the selection and application of Airius destratification fan systems for their buildings. This includes many schools and indoor gyms that have experienced comfort issues and high energy bills.