Why is indoor air quality at offices such a big concern as far as air pollution goes? It’s because we all have gone through the ‘mid work-life crisis’ where we’ve mourned how half our life has gone by on that desk in office. While it’s very dramatic and probably a little over the top, it is a fact that we crazy modern people spend a considerable amount of time indoors in our work spaces. Data from USA shows an average American spends 8.7 hours at work (Source). The Europe average is pretty much the same (Source). And let’s not even delve into burgeoning economies like China, India & Brazil where people very literally work through more than half the day! Now coming to our point. We spend so much time indoors at office away from all that dust and pollution outdoors, we should be safe right? You couldn’t be more wrong. While much ado is created about outdoor air pollution, indoor air pollution is a modern work hazard we all live with. Let’s examine it more closely.

The Inside Story

Indoor air pollution is finally getting its due. Much research has revealed that indoor air is sometimes up to 2-5 times more dangerous than outdoors (read here). While this is definitely a relative statistic, indoor air pollution most especially in offices, is a reality of both developed and emerging economies.

What causes it?

There are many sources of this indoor pollution in modern offices:

  • Energy cost saving pressures force companies to make literally airtight offices with almost no cross ventilation.
  • Office equipment and machines like printers and air conditioners etc emitting pollutants like carbon monoxide which are toxic. In fact laser printers are considered one of the biggest indoor air pollutants. Standing next to an emitting printer was comparable to standing next to a cigarette smoker (Source). So much for the ‘No Smoking’ ban indoors.
  • Exposure to the poisonous gas Radon used extensively in building materials all over the world. Radon is a radioactive gas which occurs naturally in soil and rock in some regions like Europe. It can get inside buildings by diffusing through the soil. You can’t smell or see, but exposure to Radon over a period of time has been co-related directly to lung cancer. (Read more here)
  • Radiation from building insulation and again office equipment like computers. Building insulation is also commonly known to contain several minerals commonly known as asbestos. These minerals are used to make products strong, long-lasting and fire-resistant and are found in materials like radiators, cement, plaster and even vehicle parts like brake pads and clutches. Though a safety compound, prolonged exposure of asbestos fibres in the air we breathe can actually scar lungs. It kept contained in most equipment or substance it’s used in and is hence harmless till this arrangement is overhauled or disturbed like remodelling, reconstruction and re-doing interiors as is often the case in offices. Recognising the health risks of asbestos is a growing movement in countries -50 in total so far. While some like a large part of Europe, Australia etc have banned, most regions continue to allow restricted or full use of asbestos.
  • Cleaning products using pesticides and other harmful chemicals.
  • Unhealthy pollutants found in materials used in construction and paint such as asbestos (which we addressed above), formaldehyde and lead:
    • Formaldehyde comes under Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and is found in paint, markers, adhesives etc. VOCs are a large group of chemicals that easily evaporate at room temperature. The most commonly found VOCs are next to Formaldehyde, also Benzene, Acetone und Methylene chloride. These names may not ring a bell but the sharp typical smell that you get in home products like paint, varnish, adhesive, nail paint remover etc will help you identify VOCs. However, while we can smell high levels of some VOCs, many other compounds in this family have no odour. Therefore, odour does not indicate the level of risk from inhalation of this group of chemicals. Now to come back to the adverse effects of Formaldehyde. It has been associated with increased risk of asthma, allergies and lung infections (Read here). It is a colourless gas but with a sharp smell. It is widely used around the world as a disinfectant and preservative.
    • Lead is a big component in paints. With increased objection to this harmful substance worldwide there is much emphasis on using lead free paint for homes. But cost cutting and optimisation by companies rarely sees them using the more expensive lead free paint for offices.
  • Mould and bacteria in office furnishings like blinds and carpets, ceiling panels etc. Dust mites are a major source of allergens too. These are also directly related to humidity levels in indoor air. Too low humidity levels cause eye irritation, dry skin, and rashes, whereas too high humidity results in water damage and mould problems and favours the growth of dust mites. Mould is a major problem in damp buildings or indoor environments.
  • Indoor temperature regulation can be a source of health risks. Temperatures that are too high or too low are firstly unpleasant but can be unhealthy too.

Refer to this for a comprehensive list of common pollutants and toxic particles.

Making air tight offices to shut outdoor air – a double edged sword

We don’t pay attention to indoor air quality being spoiled by substances used or found inside which we’ve elaborated above. Instead we trick ourselves into believing when we shut that door to outside air we are safe. After all working in air tight gorgeous glass and steel structures acts as a shield against the air pollution outside, right?

Modern offices with high level energy efficiency make work spaces relatively airtight

It’s the classic greenhouse effect at play- only it can work as a two-edged sword. The greenhouse effect is the natural process by which our atmosphere traps some of the Sun’s energy, warming the Earth enough to support life. While this phenomenon is responsible for our nurturing life on Earth, when it is replicated at a micro level in our sealed offices, it becomes dangerous. Our offices are tightly sealed and insulated to keep out unconditioned outdoor air and instead recirculate the indoor air that has already been heated or cooled. This is great for bringing down energy costs, but it’s not such good news for indoor pollution. Inefficient ventilation systems also allow outdoor pollutants to settle inside and over time. If offices are not vented properly and periodically, these substances accumulate and settle in the indoor air making us more vulnerable.

Also, we have to breathe!

As you know, breathing releases carbon dioxide. This is absolutely fine in small doses but if allowed to accumulate due to sealed environments then we’re in for trouble. And that’s what happens in offices where closed ventilation doesn’t allow for these gases to escape. Micro organisms and bacteria too thrive in closed spaces. If these begin to develop in one area then they find it easy to spread throughout the work space through the ventilation/ ducting system. Thus it’s not only important to ventilate properly to dilute concentrations of indoor air pollutants with outside air but also to maintain balance of reverse.

How it effects you?

The office goers

So perhaps it’s not just the work load that’s bogging you down in office. Indoor air pollution can have some debilitating effects on health and general well being. Office pollutants contribute in many ‘lifestyle’ issues that we face like a headaches, sinus discomfort, upper respiratory congestion, and eye irritation– all are deeply related to contaminated air. We all feel very fatigued, experience trouble concentrating. These are also some signs of indoor pollution catching up, especially exposure to temperature extremes, improper humidity levels, and too little or too much air circulation. Like the sales pitch presentation was not enough to make your life miserable!

The employers

We’re not just talking to employees here. Corporates and employers have to buckle up on the indoor pollution front because this is a widely recognised health hazard that hampers productivity. Studies have found that a lot of chemicals listed above negatively impact human cognitive function and decision-making.
Ever heard of Sick Building Syndrome? It’s a serious condition recognised in large parts of the developed world like Europe, Canada, Australia and Japan and it directly impacts functioning in offices as it increases staff absenteeism and staff turnover. In common language, SBS refers to a collection of symptoms posed by indoor air pollutants in offices that lead to hampered work flow such as tiredness, lethargy, headaches, coughing and other breathing issues, eye and throat irritation and many more. Read here for more details.
We’d also like to draw your attention employers to researches that have determined that employees performed much better along metrics like

  • task orientation,
  • crisis response,
  • information seeking and application
  • strategy formation etc

in environments that controlled indoor pollutants and allowed for proper ventilation (Source). So now do we really need to spell it out who’s also loosing out on optimal productivity and it’s implications on the growth and profit bottom line? No business owners if you’re still in denial about indoor air pollution not really affecting you then think again.

No green peace?

For the office goers

Yes, indoor air pollution in offices is a modern day hazard that has to be kept in check by both employers & employees coming together. While home environment is easy to bring under control for us individuals, we understand that work space is not entirely in our hands. But at UrbanMeisters, we believe in the power of change with baby steps. Information and knowledge is the first step. Keep following us as we give you concrete steps you can take by yourself to take control of your work space and also motivate and prepare you to ask your bosses to initiate change.

For the employers

UrbanMeisters will also present solutions to employers and organisations to curb the growing problem of indoor air pollution. We shall share best practices and key advancements and new innovations from around the world in green office management. Global giants like Google are making great progress in improving their indoor air quality- or bettering their GPI (Green Performance Index) as we call it! They are closely working with Aclima- a Californian start-up that has come out with a real-time system to map and analyze indoor and outdoor air quality. The data covers temperature, humidity, noise, light, and indoor emissions. Read more here. We will keep bringing you such practices and help you make a better work place.
After all, a greener workplace will always translate into better productivity and that’s always good news for all parties- workers and employers.

So pay heed and make it green!
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