Contaminant sources from building materials or human behaviour indoors, can make the indoor air eight to 10 times more polluted than the exterior air, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

At the same time research reports have confirmed the impact of poor Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) on employee productivity and poor health.

Despite this, some employers and building owners tend to be reactive rather than proactive, neglecting the maintenance of ventilation systems, according to Dr Blanca Beato-Arribas, Microclimate team leader at the Building Services Research and Information Association (BSRIA).

“Some IAQ-related problems could be avoided if it was considered at the design stage,” Dr Beato-Arribas said. 

“For example, the location of supply and extract grilles in the building, filtration selection as well as choice of building and furniture materials.

“The next steps would be proper commissioning and maintenance of the ventilation systems.”

Dr Beato-Arribas said duct cleaning and filter maintenance should reduce the levels of external contaminants, such as PM 2.5 and PM10, being brought into the space.

She said checking and limiting condensation and the use of UV lights should stop bacteria from growing in the ventilation systems and being spread in the building by the ventilation system itself. 

It is also important to control humidity levels and to ensure the right ventilation in places such as kitchens and bathrooms to stop mould from growing.

“Well designed, effective ventilation should remove most pollutants and odours in a common office environment,” she said.

Isolating the source of contaminants should also be considered. For example, some printers release ozone, which is a contaminant, so having the printer in a ventilated room or open area, rather than in a closed room, should help.

IAQ does not consist of only measuring the temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide (CO2) in a space.

Admittedly, Dr Beato-Arribas said measuring for a long list of contaminants can be expensive, which is why an informed approach is necessary.

“The level of CO2 in an occupied space is a good indicator of the general IAQ and overall ventilation effectiveness, but it is only meaningful if the space is occupied,” she said.

Human behaviours (eg the use of perfumes and cleaning products), office furniture and building materials are sometimes a source of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC).

VOCs are many and their effect on health can vary, depending on the contaminant (from causing respiratory system irritation to cancer).

Measuring for Total VOCs (TVOC) as a whole and identifying the VOCs with the largest concentrations, can give an indication of where the problem is – it is not an expensive test.

“Ensuring that the ventilation system is on (and working properly) can dilute the concentration of these contaminants, and proper selection of building materials can limit their release into the building,” Dr Beato-Arribas said.

“For example, if the office is being repainted or refurbished, selecting materials that do not have a high VOC emission rate and flushing the building should reduce the VOC concentration levels.”

The location of the building can indicate what contaminants to look for, such as a busy road.

If your building is next to a busy road then measure for nitrous oxides (NO, NO2) and particulates (PM2.5 and PM10).

If the building is on a Radon (Rn) area, checking Rn levels in the building and investigating ventilation solutions should be a priority, as exposure to Rn, which is naturally released from the ground and can cause lung cancer.

Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) looks beyond IAQ and considers the wellbeing of people in a holistic way.

IEQ looks not only at air quality, but also includes lighting, acoustic and thermal comfort, and some wellbeing standards also take nourishment, water quality, ergonomics, electromagnetic frequency levels and building aesthetics into consideration.

In summary, approximately 90% of the associated costs of a building are staff-related.

IEQ not only affects people’s health and productivity but also has an impact on the building management. It can determine of the building is a desirable space to sell or rent, or if it requires extensive and costly investigations to rectify. Therefore, providing good IEQ at work should be a priority for employers.

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