Is your HVAC system at least partially responsible for sluggishness, sickness and low productivity at work?
The answer to that question is unequivocally 'YES!' — unless you're ahead of the curve and have installed a predictive, proactive HVAC system that replenishes fresh outdoor air throughout your building at optimal levels while also monitoring the air inside and outside of your building for high concentrations of particulate matter, CO2 and other pollutants.
Indoor air quality (IAQ) impacts the health, productivity and wellbeing of building occupants. A 2014 Harvard School of Public Health double-blind study showed high CO2 and volatile organic compound levels (found in most conventional buildings) have direct negative impacts on thinking and decision making (cognitive ability).
Can Equipment in Your Building Affect Indoor Air Quality?
It sure can, and it does. Additionally, we humans produce a huge amount of air pollutants through our normal bodily functions (e.g., CO2 and methane).
- In office buildings, photocopiers, printers, lighting, UV rays and even plants can negatively impact indoor air quality.
- In restaurants, stoves, grills, fryers and refrigerators pollute indoor air significantly.
As if this isn't all enough, cleaning chemicals, carpet, treated wood, lubricants, detergents and all types of synthetic fibers can pollute your indoor air. Many underperforming HVAC systems and buildings with poor ventilation expose tens of millions of people throughout the U.S. to poor indoor air quality conditions every day.
How Does Indoor Air Quality Affect Your Workplace?
- 90% of our time is spent indoors, where air quality is typically worse than outside air because it is continuously recycled, causing the trapping and build-up of pollutants.
- Unmanaged indoor air quality is 2-5x worse than outside air quality.
- Productivity decreases by 8-10% in poor indoor air quality conditions.
IAQ is a key physiological fuel source that affects worker productivity, guest comfort, student learning, human health and the general energy levels of people in your building. If the fuel source isn't as clean as it should or could be, all of these factors will be adversely affected. This is what has been defined by the EPA as "sick building syndrome."
The next time you feel lethargic in a meeting, notice motivation drop or come down with the common cold making its way around the office, ask yourself if the indoor air quality in your environment could use a tune-up.
Indoor air quality is measured by the concentrations of particulate matter, CO2, nitrogen dioxide (NO2), ozone (O3) and other volatile organic compounds in the air — many of which are carcinogens at high concentrations. While the World Health Organization (WHO) air quality guidelines set maximum concentration safety levels for these elements in indoor environments, some of them, such as particulate matter, may cause adverse health effects to individuals. This is because exposure levels lower than the WHO air quality guideline threshold cause variability in the response among individuals to a given exposure.
The World Health Organization on Indoor Air Quality
In 1984, the World Health Organization reported that excessive complaints related to indoor air quality may be generated in up to 30% of new and remodeled buildings worldwide. In 1989, a nationwide, random sampling of U.S. office workers conducted by Honeywell Technalysis showed 24% perceived air quality problems at work, and 20% believed their work performance was adversely affected by indoor air quality.
What About Some More Recent Indoor Air Quality Studies?
Study #1: Remember that previously mentioned 2014 Harvard School of Public Health study on indoor air quality? It offers some proof.
Researchers found that on average, cognitive ability scores were 61% higher in Green building test environments and 101% higher in Green+ building test environments. These scores were compared to the scores recorded in "conventional building" environments, which had the same CO2 levels as "green buildings," but higher, not uncommon levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including aldehydes, O3, NO2 and PM2.5 (fine particulate matter). PM2.5 commonly is produced by vehicle exhaust, tobacco smoke and cooking.
"Green buildings" and "Green+ buildings" were differentiated by CO2 level (945 ppm and 550 ppm, respectively) and by outdoor air ventilation rate (20 cfm/person and 40 cfm/person, respectively). The 945 ppm CO2 level and the 20 cfm/person ventilation rate reflect minimum recommended standards by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).
Study #2: In 2012, the OFFICAIR project funded by the European Union investigated the concentrations of pollutants in 37 modern mechanically-ventilated office buildings in 8 European countries, from Finland to Spain, in summer and winter. The findings were compared to several previous studies of indoor air quality in buildings that were built or refurbished before 2001. The pollutants measured were aldehydes, O3, NO2 and PM2.5.
Seasonality effects were detected, and concentrations of pollutants were significantly different in the summer vs. the winter study.
In the summer months, materials emissions (e.g., formaldehyde emissions) and ozone concentrations (photochemical production from increased ultraviolet radiation and the HVAC system) were higher.
In the winter, terpenes (hydrocarbons found in the essential oils of plants) concentrations were higher. Additionally, the winter IAQ in the office buildings was also affected by higher benzene and nitrogen oxide emission rates from combustion sources such as heating systems and stoves combined with the higher atmospheric stability (low-hanging air and low wind speed) that occurs outdoors and impacts IAQ in the winter.
Is Your Building in Need of a Cure?
Essentially, most buildings (even modern buildings with up-to-date mechanical ventilation) may be diagnosed as "sick buildings" in need of a cure.
You can take steps to correct "sick building syndrome."