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Bake-offs may not cure 'sick buildings.'

Bake-offs may not cure 'sick buildings'

Several states are considering regulations to ward off "sick building syndrome" -- where chemicals cause illness among occupants -- in public facilities, includig schools. Building owners or employers would have to turn up the thermostat for three or more days before allowing occupancy of new or renovated buildings, to accelerate the offgassing of potentially toxic chemicals from new structural materials and furnishings. But studies by Charlene W. Bayer at the Georgia Tech Research Institute in Atlanta now suggest such proposals may be premature.

Bayer's experimenal attempts to bake off volatile organic chemicals emanating from new modular room partitions and particle-board samples (taken from an Atlanta office building) failed to eliminate the chemicals' smell and offgassing. In fact, her data indicate that a three-day bake-out at 90[degrees]F -- a regime being considered by New Jersey -- may actually create new indoor air-pollution headaches.

Bayer's tests show, for example, that if a space is not heated evenly, condensation can collect in "cold spots." Because she found that alcohols, oxygenated compounds and chlorinated chemicals preferentially dissolved in this condensate, she now worries that in the real world such condensation might transform previously benign materials, such as older carpets, into new concentrated reservoirs of potentially toxic chemicals. And cold spots may prove common, she says. Data collected by others indicate that once air temperatures reach 90[degrees]F, it may take another three days before the rest of the furnishings do. Moreover, she found that bake-out temperatures can volatilize some compounds that don't evaporate at normal room temperatures.

More surprisingly, even though her studies indicate that bake-out drives off significant quantities of volatiles, the offgassing rates at the end of the bake were hardly lower than prebake emissions, though the gases' chemical makeup may have changed. The take-home message, she believes, is that manufacturers should let new products volatilize to harmless levels for several months in their warehouses -- before selling them -- rather than in people's living and work spaces.
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Author:Raloff, J.
Publication:Science News
Date:Sep 23, 1989
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