What you can’t see can hurt you.
It’s easy to ignore things we cannot see. Gravity, oxygen, atoms fall into this category … all good things our bodies make use of daily. If these concepts ceased to exist, so would we. Yet we don’t think about that often, nor is it necessary for the average person to do so. Likewise–and unfortunately–we tend to ignore less-beneficial invisible realities such as poisonous elements that collect in our indoor environments and irritate or endanger our bodies. Sometimes we even ignore stinky toxins if the smell is bearable enough. If your home or work environment’s HVAC system is not spitting out bad air and filtering in fresh air optimally, chances are you’re inhaling damaging elements just as sure as gravity is keeping your feet on the ground. And that’s someone everyone should think about.
It’s no coincidence that some of the effects of spending time outdoors in fresh air are similar to working in an optimally-ventilated indoor environment. In fact, folks who take advantage of the outdoor lifestyles in states such as Hawaii, Montana, and Colorado are among the happier and healthier people in the country. We can give some of the credit for that sense of well-being to communing with nature, but superior-quality air is known to improve focus, sharpen thought, and promote stronger immune systems no matter where you get it from. Our society requires much of our work force to spend long hours working indoors, but that doesn’t mean we must settle for health-dampening, polluted indoor air.
Why is indoor air quality (IAQ) often ignored? For one thing, many folks still don’t know that indoor air pollution can be two to five times greater than the air we encounter outdoors. As building envelopes grow tighter to save energy, the trapped air (and whatever elements it harbors) stays indoors unless there is a well-designed ventilation system in place. Also, many of the health issues caused by harmful elements can be subtle or not announce themselves until years down the line. Just as we tend to ignore things we cannot see, we pull focus on the here and now, not on potential illnesses twenty years down the road. Perhaps if formaldehyde gave off a glow as it seeped into our nostrils, we might be more inclined to fix a bad IAQ situation.
It’s time to stop ignoring what we can’t see. Let’s take a glimpse at some of the culprits:
FORMALDEHYDE. This volatile organic compound (VOC) can measure 20 to 200 times higher indoors than outdoors and is the most common VOC found in homes. The colorless, pungent gas leaches from products such as particle board, carpets, plywood, cleaning products, solvents, mattresses, upholstery, adhesives, air fresheners, foam insulation, tobacco, and even perfumes. The chemical can aggravate allergies and asthma and cause pulmonary infections, and the National Toxicology Program recognizes it as a cause of throat, nose, and blood cancer.
BENZENE. Another VOC, benzene is colorless and may produce a sweet odor. Nationally, half our exposure comes through direct or second-hand tobacco smoke. Also, benzene’s role in creating plastics, solvents, rubber, dyes, adhesives, paint, pesticides, detergents, and drugs make it a hazard in industrial buildings as well as in poorly ventilated homes where furniture wax, paint, glue, and detergents are staples. Benzene can cause leukemia and possibly non-Hodgkin lymphoma, central nervous system issues from sleepiness to paralysis, anemia, and damage to the immune system.
PERCHLOROETHYLENE (Code name: Perc). The stuff may be colorless, but if you’ve ever picked up dry cleaning, you know the smell. Perc can cause shortness of breath, vomiting, headache, dizziness, sleepiness, and confusion, irritated eyes, nose, mouth, throat, and respiratory tracts. Long-term exposure has been linked to damage of the liver and kidneys, respiratory failure, memory loss, and is suspected of causing leukemia and cancer of the skin, colon, lungs, larynx, and bladder.
RADON. Radon is a colorless, unscented, radioactive gas that comes from decaying uranium. It leaks from rocks and soils and is rife with heavy metallic decay products, specifically polonium, lead, and bismuth. Radon builds up in basements and first floor levels by seeping from soil through gaps around pipes, sumps, drains, and porous cement foundations as well as cracks. How dangerous is this gas? Radon-induced lung cancer deaths per year in the United States average the population of a small city (approx. 21,000)!
Considering these are not the only chemicals we encounter indoors and that everything from the make of furniture in our environments to airflow patterns, temperature, and humidity can affect pollution levels, we really don’t know how harmful our specific indoor environment may be. Even if the individual levels of each chemical are not high enough to cause concern in your environment, how does the soup of them mixing together affect occupants? How do we pinpoint the culprit toxin when an occupant complains of respiratory issues or headaches?
We can minimize chemical exposure by using less caustic cleaning products, avoiding chemical air fresheners, being choosy over the manufacturing process of our furnishings, and using vacuums with HEPA filters to suck up dust that can harbor chemicals. We can try to keep temperatures and humidity as low as possible since chemicals in furnishings off-gas more when exposed to elevated levels. However, if we really want to take charge of our environment, we must focus on optimal ventilation.
The best ventilation system will not simply dilute indoor air with fresh, conditioned air, it will displace it. Such a system is the driving force for proper airflow and the ultimate comfort of those living or working in a building. High-efficiency ERVs can do exactly that. In addition, they can pre-dry incoming air to reduce opportunities for mold growth (another indoor health threat). Bonus: Such units also reduce energy costs, encouraging more building owners to meet ASHRAE ventilation requirements.
The solution to balancing tight envelopes and healthy IAQ is not a mystery. Chances are, your building or home IAQ and your wallet can benefit from a high-efficiency ERV. The physical benefits will be felt immediately. Fiscally, units can provide a payback of under three years, reduce peak demand charges, and reduce peak cooling and heating loads on existing equipment, increasing your HVAC system’s life.
Questions? Comments? In need of a ventilation plan from the BPE pros who clean up IAQ issues on a regular basis? Give us a call.