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Curing the sick building.

Tracking down indoor air pollution takes part doctor, part detective.

When Pamela Harvey Hogue goes to work she is part doctor, part detective, trying to cure an unknown malady by searching for a culprit she very likely will be unable to ever see.

"Most of the time it's the air, the ventilation," says Harvey Hogue, executive vice president of the Corporation for Environmental Management in Indianapolis. "But it can be a lot of things."

The company is one of a growing number that investigates and tries to cure instances of sick-building syndrome, an affliction common in the modern office complex. It's not the building that gets sick; it's the people who work there who suffer the troubles.

The symptoms experienced by workers can include nausea, watery eyes, sore throats and headaches. The cure can be something as simple as moving the office copier to another part of the room or as expensive as revamping the building's ventilation system.

It's a problem that is difficult to pinpoint, but one that has an effect on the bottom line. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates workers take up to $3 billion worth of sick days annually to recover from the effects of sick-building syndrome. About $100 billion annually in health costs and lost earnings can be attributed to sick-building syndrome and the reduced productivity it causes, according to the Consumer Federation of America.

For the consultant called in to help solve the problem "it's a detective story and you never know if you'll solve it the first day," says Dan Zbinden, of Micro-Air's industrial hygiene division in Indianapolis.

Problems can include molds, dusts, methane gas leaking from plumbing, microscopic particles escaping from new carpets, gases coming from office partitions and some types of furniture, inefficient lighting systems, escaped fiberglass fibers, chemical smells from copy machines and not-so-fresh-air systems.

Sick-building syndrome can manifest itself in hundreds of ways, but generally the problems employees report go away once they leave their workplace. It can take weeks or longer for a noticeable trend to develop, as employees working in a building begin to realize that others in the office or on another part of the same floor are experiencing the same headaches or nausea.

"Sometimes management needs to have someone look at the problem from a fresh perspective, from a health-based view," Zbinden says.

Even a seemingly clean office where management tries to provide a comfortable workplace can be a problem. Often the indoor troubles are things that can be easily overlooked. A study by the University of Saskatchewan found that simply raising the humidity in an office building can reduce employee absenteeism by as much as 15 percent.

"Indoor air is much worse than outdoor air, and we spend much more time inside," says Ball State University professor Thad Godish, director of the school's Indoor Air Quality Research Laboratory.

Sick-building syndrome has its foundation in the energy crisis of the 1970s. As it became more expensive to heat and cool a building, designers were pushed to come up with more airtight structures. Time has proven that as they trapped air inside they were also saddling workers with a new set of problems.

"The design of tighter building took elements that have been there all along and exacerbated problems," says David Hogue, president of the Corporation for Environmental Management.

Like doctors who can't always cure a sick patient, indoor environment consultants concede that some sick buildings defy attempts to correct problems. Sometimes it may be that a single employee is ultrasensitive to some particle in the air. Other times the source of the trouble simply can't be pinpointed.

The employee interview is the crucial first step toward solving the problem. Workers must be free to give the most honest answers they can, several consultants say.

"It's an interview done in a non-judgmental way," says Larry Silverstein, director of industrial hygiene, safety and training for Farlow Environmental Engineers of Indianapolis. "I want to know what they can tell me about the conditions."

Before the investigation is done, an investigator looking for the cause of a sick building's problems will want to know where air comes into the building, where it is heated or cooled and how it is circulated, where all machinery and chemicals are kept, the age of the building, and of the office furniture and whether or not employee workplaces have recently been rearranged.

"I need to get to know the building better than the owner," Silverstein says.

Like anyone who has examined workplace problems, he has his share of horror stories.

"I'm not at liberty to say where I ran into it," Silverstein says, "but they had people working in a room originally not intended for human occupancy. It was originally built as a copier equipment room, but it was changed into an office area. And people working there began to complain about headaches, sore throats, etc."

The "fresh" air system had its intake near the incinerator and truck dock, while the office itself was near the business' paint shop, he recalls.

Often problems can be corrected--or, better yet, prevented--with relative ease.

"Careful planning and preventative maintenance are without a doubt the most important things," says Kevin Donohue of Specialty Systems in Indianapolis.

"If you've got air filters that need to be replaced every month, then replace them every month not every six months or every year."

Other suggestions consultants make include banning smoking and placing house plants placed around an office to digest some airborne organic chemicals. Steps can be taken to ensure cleaning crews and exterminators aren't leaving behind layers of chemical residue that employees will touch or breathe.

Even the air troubles that can come with the chemicals released by a new carpet can sometimes be solved with relative ease, says Harvey Hogue. She suggests a little "cooking."

"Once the carpet is in," she explains, "put the heat up to 95 degrees and do what's called baking out the chemicals. It's so simple. Just turn the heat up and leave it for the weekend."

Sometimes just where employees are located can be a problem.

"If you've got everyone just sitting on top of one another, then if one person gets a cold everyone is going to get a cold," says Brian Christ, regional director of industrial hygiene for ATEC Associates of Indianapolis. "It's simple, but people don't always think of that. Sometimes it's just a matter of moving that one partition wall that's blocking a ventilation intake. Sometimes it's as simple as adjusting the temperature and humidity. That can make a big difference."

Other steps sometimes taken include installing hooded exhaust fans over copier machines to suck chemical-laden air from the workplace. Ceiling fans can aid circulation, and humidifiers and dehumidifiers may be needed in some workplaces, depending on the office conditions and time of the year.

Most problems can be traced back to air quality, consultants say. Stale air re-circulating through a building can be an invitation to troubles.

"You'd be surprised at the number of business owners who turn off their fresh-air system in the winter," Zbinden says. "They don't want to heat cold air from the outside."

Christ's company solved one building's troubles when investigators realized the air-intake on the ventilation system was running backward.

"Basically, it was sucking air in instead of sucking it out," he recalls. "Fifty-plus people were getting ill."

Another cause of sick-building syndrome is contamination in the chilled water cooler found atop many office buildings. They are part of the system that circulates cold water through the building, but they are also a prime place for molds to grow. In extreme cases, they have even been a breeding ground for the deadly Legionnaire's disease.

An Indianapolis company has found a way to replace the old chiller systems. Mid-American Energy Resources delivers cold air to a building's ventilation system via underground pipes, in the same way steam has been sent to downtown office buildings for years.

"This eliminates a lot of inefficiencies because they don't have to operate their own chiller, their own cooling tower," says Joe Gustin, president of Mid-American. The company's clients include the Hoosier Dome, State Office Building and the Indiana Convention Center.

Indoor air quality is an issue that can be addressed during a building's design phase. It can be expensive, but can pay off in the long run, Silverstein says.

"Productivity can increase enough to pay for the ventilation," he says, referring to studies done by the Air Force that measured whether employee performance was affected by how comfortable the work environment was.

"The most important thing is ventilation," says Harvey Hogue. "If you don't have fresh air coming in you just recirculate the same air. And then you can bet that if person A has a cold, persons B through F will get the same cold."
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Author:Skertic, Mark
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Previous Article:Wellness and the bottom line.
Next Article:Profile: August Mack Environmental.

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