Indoor Air Quality

Often times, in the indoor environment, people will experience health issues that they may interpret as their environment being the causative agent. Sometimes they are correct in that assumption in that mold or chemical agents may be present that contribute to, if not cause, their problems. Many times however, the health issues they are experiencing have no relationship with their environment and are more than likely related to an external cause. 

The information provided here will help you determine if the indoor environment you are in is causing or exacerbating health related issues and provide you with contact information for OH&S staff to investigate.

Mold

Whenever you see mold in your area something should be done either to remediate the mold or to treat the mold to where it no longer becomes a problem. There are several guidelines that we use to determine how the mold should be dealt with. This may include completely removing the contaminated material or simply coating the material with an EPA registered fungicide or a combination of both techniques.

In order for mold to be a problem for individuals, a chain of four factors must be in place:
  1. The temperature must be in a range for mold to grow
  2. The moisture or humidity must be within an acceptable range for mold to grow
  3. The mold must have a food source
  4. Individuals must be susceptible to the particular type of mold
Taking any one of these four factors away will greatly reduce the potential for mold to be the actual cause of the problems, effectively breaking the chain.  Temperature and humidity can be altered relatively easy whereas a food source and susceptible individuals are much more difficult to control. 

Sometimes dirt can be confused as mold especially around air supply grills. UAB being in an urban environment, outside air can contain carbon as well as general dirt. This can be entrained in the air system and eventually deposited in the indoor space. Given the mass of these contaminates, they are often times deposited on surfaces close to the source of the airflow. This can be desks, ceiling tiles, and computers. This is especially noticeable on white paper that may be on desks because the material is usually a dark color. This is not mold.

Contacting OH&S

When you need to contact OH&S you could help us help you by supplying as much information as you possibly can. The points below are guidelines to consider when you correspond with us:
  • Indicate time of day you are experiencing issues
  • Is anyone else experiencing these issues?
  • Is there an odor associated?
  • What does it smell like?
  • Can you see mold?
  • Have you had water damage recently?
  • Is the area too hot or cold?
  • Has maintenance been contacted?
  • What did maintenance do?
  • Do you see particulate material?
Chemicals

Unexpected odors in an area often generate complaints of chemical exposure. Sometimes a new chemical has gotten into the air and sometimes the odor is a symptom of too little ventilation allowing a higher than normal build up of a familiar material. For example – copier toner may not cause an odor problem most of the time, but if the HVAC system fails or if someone makes 500 multi-page copies all at once, then the toner odor can be quite irritating.

The first steps to tracking and eliminating a chemical odor are to determine the identity and source of the odor. Although methods of measuring chemicals are available, they only work well when the identity of the chemical is known. Some chemical odors are familiar to most people, other odors may smell similar to a known odor and still others are completely unusual. The more information you can provide about the smell, the better.

Typical culprits

The following materials are common sources of indoor chemical odor complaints. 
  • Cleaning chemicals – especially floor wax stripper. This chemical can be very irritating, so it is often used at night when fewer building occupants are around. 
  • Paints and adhesives – solvent odors from oil based paint and floor and trim adhesives can be very strong. These materials usually have a mineral spirit type of odor that can cause respiratory irritation and headaches in sensitive people. 
  • Sewer gas – dry traps in sinks and drains can allow bad smelling sewer gas into occupied spaces – especially labs with infrequently used cup sinks. Abrupt air pressure changes and sewer cleaning procedures can also cause sewer gas to enter a building. 
  • Vehicle exhaust – because UAB is in an urban setting, vehicle exhaust can become entrained in the ventilation systems of buildings. 
  • Laboratory chemicals – if volatile chemicals are not used with the proper controls, such as hoods or local scavenging systems, they may be carried throughout a building causing indoor air quality issues.
Reporting a Suspected Chemical Odor Problem

As with mold, the more specific and detailed the information you can give the better. Try to characterize the odor as much as possible. If we get a request to check out a ‘gas’ odor, we don’t know if it is gasoline, natural gas, sewer gas or vehicle exhaust. If we are told it smells like rotten eggs, then we have an idea that sewer gas may be to blame. Key information includes:
  • The type of odor to the best of your ability to describe it
  • Location
  • When it occurs
  • Affected vs. unaffected areas
  • How long has it occurred (report sooner rather than later)
  • Is there new activity in the area
  • Is it present outside as well as inside (we may have limited control over outside odor problems such as roofing of adjacent buildings)
  • Your contact information so we can follow up
What We Can Do

When we receive a complaint, an OH&S representative will contact the person making the complaint and gather as much information as possible about the nature of the problem. In most cases, a site visit is needed and some screening tests are done to identify materials or conditions that may be contributing to the IAQ complaint. 

Initial screening will normally consist of collecting environmental data for temperature, humidity and airborne contaminants. The chemical contaminants most commonly checked are formaldehyde, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone and total hydrocarbons. Depending of the screening results, additional tests or actions may be needed

To report an indoor air quality problem contact Kyle Boyett (kboyett@uab.edu) for suspected mold or biological issues, or Judy McBride (jmcbride@uab.edu) for suspected chemical issues. Both can be reached by telephone at 934-2487.

Additional IAQ Information:

Indoor air quality issues increase during the spring and fall when the temperature changes and the HVAC system in a building changes from heating to cooling or vice versa. Some of this increase may be due to a change in pollen and other allergen counts in the outside air. Here are some links to local air quality information

Jefferson County Air Quality http://www.alabamacleanair.org/air-quality/

Birmingham Pollen Count http://web1.weather.com/outlook/health/allergies/weather/35206

What You Can Do

Here are some self-help tips to prevent or remedy Indoor Air Quality issues. Since the occupants of an area have greater knowledge of what is going on in a space, they are often the best ones to determine the source of an IAQ problem. If no obvious source is found, then OH&S can conduct some basic screens to help track sources of odor or irritation.

Temperature and humidity can cause trouble if they fall outside the comfort range of the occupants. If an area is too warm and/or too dry, occupants can suffer eye and respiratory irritation even when no chemical or biological agents are present. High humidity makes an area feel ‘muggy’ and may contribute to mold growth.

Indoor air quality (IAQ) issues can arise from a variety of conditions.

Here are some straightforward options for addressing a potential IAQ problem as soon as it is noticed:
  • Has the area been flooded or had moisture infiltration? Bacteria and mold grow easily in damp carpeting, carpet pads and on sheetrock. Clean up spills quickly and thoroughly dry wet carpeting. Report leaks promptly.
  • Is there a kitchen area or refrigerator present? Cooking odors can be unpleasant. Small amounts of garbage in sink traps can smell bad and the drip pans of refrigerators can grow bacteria and mold. Make sure sinks and fridges are cleaned regularly.
  • Is the area dusty? Filing rooms and offices with large numbers of papers can be dust magnets. Try to keep paper under control and have areas dusted regularly.
Look for potential sources of chemical irritants:
  • Is there new paint, carpet or furniture in the area – all of these can release low levels of irritating substances into the environment.
  • Are there copiers or printers in the space? Copiers can generate ozone and copiers and printers can release toner.
  • Is there some type of chemical use in neighboring spaces? This includes labs, darkrooms, copy rooms and construction areas.
  • Is there garbage or chemical residue in trashcans? Rotting fruit smells like organic solvents. Paper towels wet with glues, paints or solvents release vapors into the surrounding area.
  • Cleaning chemicals can cause problems for some occupants. The wax stripper used on tile floors is notorious for causing eye and respiratory irritation.
  • Is an outdoor source of odor being brought in through the ventilation? Anything from smokers near an air intake to fertilizer applied near a window can produce noxious odors.
  • Finally, is an occupant wearing a strong perfume or cologne? Some fragrances are unpleasant or irritating to sensitive co-workers. Common sense and courtesy should be guidelines.