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Ensuring good indoor air quality.

Sneezing. Runny noses. Headaches. Nausea. These are just some of the symptoms cited by tenants in their complaints about poor indoor air quality (IAQ). How can property managers determine if these grievances are real? How can they pinpoint and correct the cause of these complaints?

Behind the reality of dissatisfied tenants looms the spectacle of legal action. Recent lawsuits have-imposed multi-million-dollar damage awards on manufacturers and others whose actions contributed to an indoor pollution problem.

To prevent such occurrences, the U.S. Congress has been considering legislation to address indoor air contaminants. Meanwhile, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is proposing to set standards for indoor air quality.

Property managers are now being squeezed on the one hand by tenant complaints and threats of regulation and legislation. On the other hand, managers are feeling the pinch of today's tighter operating budgets, which often make it virtually impossible to engage consulting engineers to target the cause of tenant concerns.

However, air-quality experts contend there is a great deal managers can do on their own to spot the causes of air-quality problems and mitigate them.

Taking complaints seriously

The first step in resolving IAQ problems is recognizing that there is a problem. IAQ authorities recommend that action should be taken before tenant complaints assume crisis proportions. "It's more expensive and a great deal more difficult to track down problems after they get to the crisis level," advises Charlene Bayer, Ph.D., principal research scientist and head of the Environmental Monitoring Research Branch of the Georgia Tech Research Institute in Atlanta.

"Ignoring the problem won't make it go away," advises John Hennessy III, P.E., chairman of the board and chief executive of Syska & Hennessy, New York, a consulting engineering firm. "If you have a procedure for identifying the source of a complaint, you have a better chance of eliminating it."

Property managers who intend to address occupant complaints may want to arm themselves with a new manual entitled Building Air Quality: A Guide for Building Owners and Facility Managers. Issued in December 1991, the 229-page document represents a joint effort by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Centers for Disease Control, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. (The book is available for $24 from the Government Printing Office, [202] 783-3238. ) Several real estate groups, including the Institute of Real Estate Management, provided commentary for this publication.

The information in this manual, augmented with common sense and persistence, can prove useful in addressing complaints and correcting problems before they escalate into tenant warfare.

Diagnosing IAQ problems

Locating the source of air-quality problems is key to diagnosing and solving IAQ complaints. The diagnostic process starts with a walkthrough of the property, or at least the part of it where complaints have centered.

"in about 90 percent of the buildings I see, the main part of my analysis is looking clearly and logically at what's really going on with the building and assessing how it contributes to indoor air-quality problems," says Bayer.

Checking the records. Milton Meckler is the editor of the Indoor Air Quality Design Guidebook and president of The Meckler Group in Encino, California, a consulting engineering firm. He suggests a thorough review of building records before conducting a walkthrough. "Take a look at all blueprints" he suggests, "including the layout of the HVAC system, and review any modifications that may have been made.

"Also inspect the building's operation and maintenance records. This may indicate whether the system was properly set, tested, and balanced after construction. If the HVAC system was installed or modified without being commissioned, it may never have performed according to design."

Building records also can indicate whether the system components are regularly inspected, cleaned, calibrated, and adjusted. If you cannot find this information in the records, check with maintenance staff members. "Deferred maintenance is usually a contributing factor to IAQ problems," says Hennessy. "In fact, deferred maintenance is often a misnomer because it usually means it just wasn't done. And that can be pretty dangerous."

Walkthroughs. Meckier suggests that managers arm themselves with measuring tape, calculator, flashlight, ladder, and tool kit for use during a walkthrough. Bayer advises bringing along the building's primary maintenance person. "He's usually the one who knows the most about what's going on with the building mechanical and HVAC systems" she contends. Other potential sources of information on housekeeping and non-HVAC equipment should also be available to supplement information where needed.

A thorough walkthrough will often reveal obvious pollution sources, such as odors, dust, and excessive staining. Check for sanitation problems, such as debris near outdoor air intakes, visible mold growth, and major water damage, all of which can introduce contaminates into the building's air supply.

Occupant information. If the initial walkthrough does not uncover the reason for air quality problems, you will need to gather more information. Review any records of occupant complaints, and talk to as many complainants as possible. "It's important to set up an environment where property managers and occupants are engaged in a shared search for knowledge about the cause of the problem," says Bayer.

Experts suggest that you keep a record of each interview, and send an air-quality questionnaire to people you cannot interview in person. These interviews may help you spot a pattern of symptoms (many complaints of the same or similar symptoms) or a pattern of timings (a certain time of day, a specific date when symptoms first appeared). Interviews may also help you narrow the complaint area.

Checking the HVAC system. The next step is to find out whether the quantity or distribution of outdoor air provides adequate ventilation. Your goal is to determine whether:

* The components that service the complaint area are working properly.

* The HVAC system is adequate for the current use of the building.

* The HVAC is deficient in ventilation or thermal comfort. To obtain this information, measure the temperature, humidity, air flow, and carbon dioxide levels in the complaint areas.

Check maintenance staff members for information about any recent breakdowns, repairs, or alterations to the HVAC system. Bayer suggests a thorough check of the location and the efficiency of the outside air intakes. "In one building, I asked the maintenance staffers why the outside air intakes were locked, and they said, 'Because it's the air-conditioning season.' They thought that was how the system worked because they'd been taught that by their superiors."

Cautions Hennessy, "Property managers should be careful about effecting energy savings by reducing the amount of outdoor air brought into a space. Such measures can cause a great many IAQ problems in the long run."

Inspect the HVAC equipment for problems such as broken thermostats, faulty diffusers, defective fans, impaired dampers, or broken filters. Compare the current HVAC system to the original design. It is possible that original equipment has been replaced with less efficient equipment.

Work with building maintenance personnel to answer the following questions: Does the layout of air supplies, returns, and exhausts promote efficient air distribution? Are contaminants properly isolated or diluted by the system? (See information later in this article on ASHRAE ventilation standards.)

Take a close look at the HVAC system itself to make sure that it is capable of serving the building efficiently. Check for corrosion, water damage, or excessive dust in ductwork. Standing water in the ventilation.system or in humidifiers can result in mold, microbes, and Legionella bacteria, which thrive in warm water. Inspect ceiling plenums for debris or damaged materials.

Bayer suggests checking the mechanical room. "The return air is dumped into this room, where it's mixed with outside air. If the mechanical room is used as a smoking lounge or storage area, or if the air here is dirty for any reason, you could be sending pollutants back into the building" she says.

The EPA suggests comparing the original, intended use of the complaint areas and how these areas currently are used. Have significant changes occurred in usage without corresponding adjustments to the HVAC system?

Check for pollutants. Your walkthrough may reveal spots where the complaint area may have been penetrated by pollutants. Look for connecting points such as doors, operable windows, stairways, elevator shafts, utility chases, ductwork, and plenums, along with areas served by a shared thermostat. Look for holes and cracks where pollutants can enter.

Search out likely sources of pollutants. Possible outdoor sources include air intakes, areas of heavy vehicle traffic, and construction activity. Possible indoor sources include large pieces of office equipment (copiers, repro machines), smoking lounges, laboratories, print shops, dry-cleaning establishments, and beauty salons.

Consult with building staff members as well as with outside contractors hired for housekeeping, pest control, or remodeling work. Ask them to provide a list of materials, procedures, and schedules involved in their operations in the building. "I've seen some buildings where maintenance staff members apply pesticide sprays while occupants are working at their desks," says Bayer. If pest-control services are performed by a contractor, she suggests, 'Ask them what pesticides are being used, so you know what chemicals workers are exposed to."

The source of IAQ problems may be construction or remodeling work undertaken by tenants. "When walls and dividers are added," advises Bayer, "make sure the air supply is still adequate and check to see whether the flow of air has been blocked." The EPA manual suggests checking supply diffusers and using chemical smoke to assess air movement.

Meckler advises that, whenever possible, new construction or tenant improvement work should not take place during occupancy periods. "You should arrange to have construction space ventilated on a 24-hour basis to flush out potential irritants. Considering the cost of [IAQ] litigation, such measures can be a good investment."

Paint and wall-coverings, as well as new furnishings, such as carpeting or furniture, can emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) for months or years after being installed. These VOCs can produce strong allergic reactions, even among tenants who are not normally susceptible to airborne allergens.

If you suspect a problem, you can ask suppliers to furnish product-emission information. "Such a request can even be inserted in a request for a bid;' suggests Bayer.

Check on the building itself, as well as its site. Inquire about incidents such as fires, spills, and leaks. Investigate possible landfills or underground fuel tanks that might be emitting pollutants. Inquire about any clean-up actions that may have been taken.

Other factors. Complaints that seem linked to IAQ may actually be triggered by environmental factors such as lighting problems, noise, or low-frequency vibration from nearby machinery. Ergonomic stressors such as workplace fatigue and furniture that is unsuited to a task may be misperceived as IAQ problems.

Workers undergoing conditions of job-related psychosocial stress may attribute their problems to the quality of the air around them. "Air-quality problems are often related to home or workplace stress," says Meckler. "That's why we suggest that occupant interviews be conducted in concert with someone who's familiar with the psychological overlays of IAQ problems."

Resolving IAQ problems

Among the options you may choose to relieve or resolve IAQ problems:

Source control. This is usually the most effective approach when the source of the problem has been identified. Source-control methods include:

* Prohibiting smoking or limiting it to areas where the smoke can be exhausted to the outside.

* Relocating problem equipment to areas that are better ventilated.

* Replacing problem-producers with safer products.

You may decide to seal or cover the source of a problem or to clean and disinfect a problem area, then inhibit regrowth of fungus or bacteria with chemicals.

Ventilation. Consider modifying ventilation to dilute contaminants with outside air. This involves increasing the supply air and improving distribution. Another option is installing local exhaust at the source of the contaminant.

Air cleaning. This strategy may be your only choice when the source of pollution is outside of the building. Particulate filtration, electrostatic precipitation, and negative ion generation are methods of removing particulates, while gas sorption is designed to remove gases.

Exposure control. You should try to schedule contaminant-producing activities to avoid complaints, such as planning painting and remodeling activities on weekends. Another exposure-control tactic is not flying susceptible individuals about upcoming events. This allows them to limit contact with contaminants, such as pesticides or cleaning products.

Preventing IAQ problems

Experts maintain that the best way to prevent air quality problems is to establish an IAQ policy. "Have a pro-active program in place;' urges Meckler. "If you monitor the building before an incident, you know what the cause is likely not to be when a problem occurs. A good program depends upon periodic inspections of the building, plus good records"

"If you have a strong and effective indoor air policy in place;' Bayer agrees, "you're less likely to have a problem that snowballs. A policy enables you to track down problems before they get to the crisis level."

IAQ specialists maintain that an IAQ policy should spell out:

* The elements of healthy IAQ. As a minimum, experts suggest conforming with ASHRAE 69-1989, established by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers. This standard suggests an airflow of at least 15 cubic feet per minute (cfm) per person. In most situations, the standard suggests 20 cfm or more. Specific requirements depend on occupant density and the activity for which the space is used.

* Procedures for sound operation, maintenance, and housekeeping, including the judicious use of chemicals and pesticides.

* Procedures for operating, cleaning, and maintaining the HVAC system, including filters, drain pans, diffusers, grills, dampers, air intakes, and cooling towers.

* Procedures for training maintenance workers to operate and maintain the building's HVAC system.

* Procedures for responding promptly to occupant complaints. Experts stress that, while establishing an IAQ policy makes good business sense, it offers no guarantee that your building will be free of air-quality problems.

Says Bayer, "Using an IAQ policy mixed with common sense, most buildings can be made a great deal more healthy."

And an IAQ policy, when employed in conjunction with good housekeeping practices, ongoing education of maintenance employees, and a thorough understanding of what is really going on in a building, may allow you to resolve IAQ problems without calling in outside consultants.

Cathie Rategan is a Chicago-based freelance writer and the president of Writer, Inc. She has written for a variety of business publications, including the Journal of Property Management.

Sources of Odor and Contamination

Interior sources of odor and contamination are generated by human activity, either for work processes or personal activity, and by the facility itself. Workrelated activities include:

* Facility-related work such as painting, carpeting, wail covering installation, and minor remodeling.

* Product-related work such as minor soldering not done under exhaust hoods, electronics testing and minor repairs, printing and duplication processes, and food preparation activities. Personal related activities include:

* Smoking.

* Use of personal toiletry items, hair sprays, shoe polish, etc. Many people have or are developing multi-chemical sensitivities (MCS) to these substances.

The legal stakes in this issue alone are prompting the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) to focus special attention on this issue.

* Personal break-time activities. In one case, it was discovered that an engineer in a large open space was assembling plastic model cars during his lunch hour. Fumes from the adhesives, paints, and solvents used were drawn into the HVAC system, to be circulated throughout the area.

* Bacteriological contamination. Most bacteria are brought into the work place by occupants. In some cases, individuals water plants to excess, which leads to the growth of environmental molds and fungus.

Facility-related sources of contamination include:

* Particulates discharged into the occupied spaces by the HVAC system. One of the contaminants showing an increase among the older buildings is fiberglass from the duct lining and HVAC system plenums. Over time, this material breaks up and individual fibers are carried by the airstream into the work environment. Most of the fiberglass ends up in the settle dust on furnishings.

* In some rather rare cases, ozone can be emitted in the interior from defective electrical equipment and lighting systems.

There also are exterior sources that may enter the building and contribute to the problems. Some typical examples include:

* An outside air intake located at street level that can pick up vehicle exhaust.

* A building exhaust or process exhaust discharge located in proximity to the outside air intake for the HVAC system.

Wayne Hansen, P.E., CEM, is director of engineering for NIAQ, a division of Mintie Corp.


An Environmental Protection Agency study revealed that personal exposures to the toxic and carcinogenic chemicals they studied "are nearly always greater--often much greater--than outdoor concentrations... indoor air in the home and at work far outweighs outdoor air as a route of exposure to these chemicals."

The price tag for indoor air pollution is high. These are estimated annual costs:

* Medical care for major illnesses resulting from indoor air pollution: over $1 billion.

* Productivity losses associated with major illnesses caused by indoor air pollution: anywhere from $4.7 billion to $5.4 billion.

* Productivity losses on the job and increased sick-leave time due to indoor air pollution; as high as $60 billion annually

Source: EPA Reports to Congress on indoor Air Quality, August 1989; Volume II: "The Assement and Control of Indoor Air Pollution"
COPYRIGHT 1992 National Association of Realtors
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Rategan, Cathie
Publication:Journal of Property Management
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:May 1, 1992
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