How employee productivity chokes on indoor air.

As tree pollen in the spring morphs into grass pollen in the summer, allergy sufferers are probably blaming the air out there. But it’s the air in here — in the office — however, that’s probably making them wheeze, cough and sniffle.

According to the EPA, the air inside can be two to five times more polluted than outside. Even though the EPA has ranked indoor air pollutants among the top five environmental risks to public health, it may not be a topic that comes up around your water cooler.

The impact of indoor air pollutants can be subtle — eye irritation, headaches, nausea and fatigue. However, a growing body of research suggests that poor indoor air can increase of risk of asthma, pulmonary infections and allergies. Poor indoor air hinders comfort, attention span and productivity, and OSHA estimates that poor indoor air costs employers $15 billion annually due to worker inefficiency and sick leave.

Few companies are focused on poor indoor air and its impact on workforce productivity. Concerned about maximizing productivity, many employers today focus on encouraging employees to eat well and exercise, but they haven’t done much to improve the air their employees breathe. According to research conducted by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, employers can improve workforce performance by up to 10 percent through improvements in the quality of indoor air.

One of the major reasons for poor indoor air is the growing amounts of chemicals in the workplace, which can emanate from technology hardware, construction materials, furniture and furnishings, and cleaning products.

Printers and copiers can emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), small particles and ozone while other products like floor and wall coverings, paints and furniture can emit hundreds of different VOCs into the air including formaldehyde and toluene. Computers and other electronics generate significant amounts of heat, accelerating emissions into the air from the plastics, circuitry and adhesives used to make these products. And this doesn’t even take into account the impact of cleaning products, pest control solutions, personal care products and more that can also send odors and VOCs into the air.

Not only are we coming into contact with more chemicals than ever before, we are spending more time around them — the average American spends up to 90 percent of his time indoors.

Outdoor air ventilation is essential to reducing indoor air pollutants and providing good air quality in the workplace. While increased ventilation may reduce VOCs, it increases the use of energy. As a result, many modern buildings are designed with a tight seal, which is good for energy efficiency, but bad for air quality. The World Health Organization estimates that 30 percent of all new or renovated buildings have poor indoor air quality.

Since smoking was banned in the American office, indoor materials, furnishings and office equipment have become the biggest threats to the air we breathe. Luckily, small changes can make a big difference. Install large networked printers in well-ventilated spaces with direct exhaust to the outdoor air, and if you must use a personal printer in a confined workspace, select a printer with slower printer speed and an environmental certification, as they will emit fewer chemicals.

Also, don’t constantly fiddle with the thermostat as fluctuations in temperature and humidity can cause condensation and lead to mold growth and — in extreme cases — could affect the indoor air quality by increasing chemical emissions and odors from products. And lastly, seek out and purchase office products with the lowest possible chemical emissions.

A healthy workplace can lead to a more productive workforce. With some small changes, you can stop choking off employee productivity by cleaning up the air they breathe.

Marilyn BlackUL VP and Senior Technical Advisor on IAQ, and founder UL Air Quality Sciences

The Facts about Mold: For Everyone 

What is mold?

The term “mold” is a colloquial term for a group of filamentous fungi that are common on food or wet materials. This includes the green Penicillium species that produces penicillin, and fungi that spoil our bread, fruit, cheese and crops. Most of these are Ascomycetes that produce a lot of spores.

The majority of the molds that grow on damp building materials are found in the soil and are adapted to grow on a wide variety of materials. Outdoors, molds live in the soil, on plants, and on dead or decaying matter. There are thousands of species of mold and they can be any color. Different mold species are adapted to different moisture conditions ranging from very wet to just damp. Many times, mold can be detected by a musty odor. Live spores act like seeds, forming new mold growths (colonies) under the right conditions. All of us are exposed to a variety of fungal spores daily in the air we breathe, both outdoors and indoors.

How mold gets into a house or building

Mold and fungal spores occur naturally outdoors, where fungi are the earth’s most important recyclers. Indoors, mold needs moisture to grow; it becomes a problem only where there is water damage, elevated and prolonged humidity, or dampness. Common sources of excessive indoor moisture that can lead to mold problems include:

  • flooding from surface waters (i.e., overflowing rivers) or from severe storms;
  • roof leaks from damaged or missing roofing materials, ice dams or blocked gutters;
  • storm-driven rain through window frames, exterior walls or door assemblies;
  • leaking pipes, sewer back-ups or overflows;
  • damp basements or crawl spaces due to a high water table or poorly managed rainwater drainage; and
  • condensation on cold surfaces.

How to prevent mold growth

The key to preventing and stopping indoor mold growth is to control excessive moisture and condensation. Keeping susceptible areas in the home clean and dry is critical. In general, mold will not grow indoors without water, dampness or excessive moisture.

Three main factors contribute to condensation of water on building surfaces:

  • Relative Humidity: Condensation occurs when the air is saturated with water and it cannot hold any more moisture. For example, steam generated from bathroom showers or from cooking can fill up the air with moisture, which will then condense into drops of water on cooler surfaces, such as mirrors and windows. Where possible, localized sources of humidity, such as clothes dryers, should be directly vented to the outdoors. To lower indoor humidity during warm, humid weather, air conditioners and/or dehumidifiers should be used. In chronically damp areas such as basements or crawlspaces, it is often recommended that dehumidifiers be used to maintain humidity levels below 60 percent.
  • Temperature: Warm air holds more moisture than cold air. Condensation occurs when warm humid air comes into contact with a cold surface and the moisture condenses into water. This can often be seen on single-pane windows, where water condenses and then runs down, causing the wood frames and sills to rot and the wall under the windows to blister. Condensation can occur on exterior walls, particularly north-facing walls, if they are not properly insulated. Other chronically cold surfaces, such as cold water pipes, should be covered with insulation to help prevent condensation.
  • Poor Ventilation: Indoor humidity can build up if there is not enough ventilation and exchange of indoor and outdoor air. Where there is little or no air movement, such as behind dressers and cabinets, surfaces can remain cooler than surrounding areas, which can lead to increased condensation and mold growth. It is recommended that the area be ventilated and the occupants use exhaust fans (vented to the outdoors) to remove moisture from high-humidity areas, particularly in bathrooms, kitchens and laundry areas. Furniture should be moved slightly away from walls so that air can freely pass behind it. Air should be allowed to circulate between rooms and regularly ventilate to remove humid air. Fans should be used as needed.

Other things that can be done are to clean and repair gutters regularly, make sure the ground slopes down and away from the home’s foundation and keep air conditioner drip pans and drain lines clean. In addition, in air conditioned buildings in hot and humid climates, vinyl wall coverings on the interior sides of exterior walls should not be used, as these materials can trap moisture, resulting in mold growth underneath them.

In the case of floods or leaking pipes, any standing water should be promptly removed and water-damaged materials should either be dried out and cleaned, or removed and replaced. Porous materials that are wet for more than 48 hours are likely to produce mold growth and should be discarded. In instances where the water damage is extensive, it is recommended that professional help, such as a commercial restoration company, be consulted.

American Industrial Hygiene Association