IAQ can be affected by microbial contaminants (mold, bacteria), gases (including carbon monoxide, radon, volatile organic compounds), particulates, or any mass or energy stressor that can induce adverse health conditions. Indoor air is becoming an increasingly more concerning health hazard than outdoor air. Using ventilation to dilute contaminants, filtration, and source control are the primary methods for improving indoor air quality in most buildings.
Determination of IAQ involves the collection of air samples, monitoring human exposure to pollutants, collection of samples on building surfaces and computer modelling of air flow inside buildings.
Radon is an invisible, radioactive atomic gas that results from the radioactive decay of radium, which may be found in rock formations beneath buildings or in certain building materials themselves. Radon is probably the most pervasive serious hazard for indoor air in the United States and Europe, probably responsible for tens of thousands of deaths from lung cancer each year. There are relatively simple tests for radon gas, but these tests are not commonly done, even in areas of known systematic hazards. Radon is a heavy gas and thus will tend to accumulate at the floor level. Building materials can actually be a significant source of radon, but very little testing is done for stone, rock or tile products brought into building sites. The half life for radon is 3.8 days, indicating that once the source is removed, the hazard will be greatly reduced within a few weeks. However annually thousands of people go to radon contaminated mines for purposeful exposure to help with the symptoms of arthritis without any serious known health effects. Radon mitigation methods include sealing concrete slab floors, basement foundations, water drainage systems, or by increasing ventilation.. They are usually cost effective and can greatly reduce or even eliminate the contamination and the associated health risks.
These biological chemicals can arise from a host of means, but there are two common classes: (a) moisture induced growth of mold colonies and (b) natural substances released into the air such as animal dander and plant pollen. Moisture buildup inside buildings may arise from water penetrating compromised areas of the building envelope or skin, from plumbing leaks, from condensation due to improper ventilation, or from ground moisture penetrating a building part. In areas where cellulosic materials (paper and wood, including drywall) become moist and fail to dry within 48 hours, mold mildew can propagate and release allergenic spores into the air.
In many cases, if materials have failed to dry out several days after the suspected water event, mold growth is suspected within wall cavities even if it is not immediately visible. Through a mold investigation, which may include destructive inspection, one should be able to determine the presence or absence of mold. In a situation where there is visible mold and the indoor air quality may have been compromised, mold remediation may be needed. Mold testing and inspections should be done by an independent investigator to avoid any conflict of interest and to insure accurate results; free mold testing offered by remediation companies is not recommended.
There are some varieties of mold that contain toxic compounds (mycotoxins). However, exposure to hazardous levels of mycotoxin via inhalation is not possible in most cases, as toxins are produced by the fungal body and are not at significant levels in the released spores. The primary hazard of mold growth, as it relates to indoor air quality, comes from the allergenic properties of the spore cell wall. More serious than most allergenic properties is the ability of mold to trigger episodes in persons that already have asthma, a serious respiratory disease.
Mold is always associated with moisture, and its growth can be inhibited by keeping humidity levels below 50%. Moisture problems causing mold growth can be direct such as a water leaks and/or indirect such as condensation due to humidity levels.
One of the most acutely toxic indoor air contaminants is carbon monoxide (CO), a colorless, odorless gas that is a byproduct of incomplete combustion of fossil fuels. Common sources of carbon monoxide are tobacco smoke, space heaters using fossil fuels, defective central heating furnaces and automobile exhaust. Improvements in indoor levels of CO are systematically improving from increasing numbers of smoke-free restaurants and other legislated non-smoking buildings. By depriving the brain of oxygen, high levels of carbon monoxide can lead to nausea, unconsciousness and death. According to the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH), the time-weighted average (TWA) limit for carbon monoxide (630-08-0) is 25 ppm.
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects. Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors. VOCs are emitted by a wide array of products numbering in the thousands. Examples include: paints and lacquers, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, office equipment such as copiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper, graphics and craft materials including glues and adhesives, permanent markers, and photographic solutions.
Organic chemicals are widely used as ingredients in household products. Paints, varnishes, and wax all contain organic solvents, as do many cleaning, disinfecting, cosmetic, degreasing, and hobby products. Fuels are made up of organic chemicals. All of these products can release organic compounds during usage, and, to some degree, when they are stored.
Studies of VOCs in large buildings and in residences over the past two decades have shown that their concentrations have decreased considerably, probably as a result primarily of regulations limiting emissions of precursors of photochemical smog but also due to heightened awareness of their importance indoors to occupant health. Testing emissions from building materials used indoors has become increasingly common for floor coverings, paints, and many other important indoor building materials and finishes.
Legionellosis or Legionnaire's Disease is caused by a waterborne bacterium Legionella that grows best in slow-moving or still, warm water. The primary route of exposure is aerosolization, most commonly from evaporative cooling towers or showerheads. A common source of Legionella in commercial buildings is from poorly placed or maintained evaporative cooling towers, which often release aerosolized water that may enter nearby ventilation intakes. Outbreaks in medical facilities and nursing homes, where patients are immuno-suppressed and immuno-weak, are the most commonly reported cases of Legionellosis. More than one case has involved outdoor fountains in public attractions. The presence of Legionella in commercial building water supplies is highly under-reported, as healthy people require heavy exposure to acquire infection.
Legionella testing typically involves collecting water samples and surface swabs from evaporative cooling basins, shower heads, faucets, and other locations where warm water collects. The samples are then cultured and colony forming units (cfu) of Legionella are quantified as cfu/Liter.
Legionella is a parasite of protazoans such as amoeba, and thus requires conditions suitable for both organisms. The bacterium forms a biofilm which is resistant to chemical and antimicrobial treatments, including chlorine. Remediation for Legionella outbreaks in commercial buildings vary, but often include very hot water flushes (160 °F; 70 °C), sterilization of standing water in evaporative cooling basins, replacement of shower heads, and in some cases flushes of heavy metal salts. Preventative measures include adjusting normal hot water levels to allow for 120°F at the tap, evaluating facility design layout, removing faucet aerators, and periodic testing in suspect areas.
The U.S. Federal Government (www.osha.gov) and some States have set standards for acceptable levels of asbestos fibers in indoor air. Many common building materials used before 1975 contain asbestos, such as some floor tiles, ceiling tiles, taping muds, pipe wrap, mastics and other insulation materials. Normally significant releases of asbestos fiber do not occur unless the building materials are disturbed, such as by cutting, sanding, drilling or building remodelling. There are particularly stringent regulations applicable to schools.
Inhalation of asbestos fibers over long exposure times is associated with increased incidence of lung cancer.
Asbestos is found in older homes and buildings, but it is most dangerous in schools and industrial settings. It was once widely used in shingles, fireproofing, heating systems and floor and ceiling tiles in older buildings. When asbestos-containing material is damaged or disintegrates, microscopic fibers are dispersed into the air. The risk of lung cancer from inhaling asbestos fibers is also greater to smokers. The symptoms of the disease do not usually appear until about 20 to 30 years after the first exposure to asbestos. Removal of asbestos-containing materials is not always optimal because the fibers can be spread into the air during the removal process. A management program for intact asbestos-containing materials is often recommended instead.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a surrogate for indoor pollutants emitted by humans and correlates with human metabolic activity. Carbon dioxide at levels that are unusually high indoors may cause occupants to grow drowsy, get headaches, or function at lower activity levels. Humans are the main indoor source of carbon dioxide. Indoor levels are an indicator of the adequacy of outdoor air ventilation relative to indoor occupant density and metabolic activity. To eliminate most Indoor Air Quality complaints, total indoor carbon dioxide should be reduced a difference of less than 600 ppm above outdoor levels. NIOSH considers that indoor air concentrations of carbon dioxide that exceed 1,000 ppm are a marker suggesting inadequate ventilation. ASHRAE recommends that carbon dioxide levels not exceed 700 ppm above outdoor ambient levels. The UK standards for schools say that carbon dioxide in all teaching and learning spaces, when measured at seated head height and averaged over the whole day should not exceed 1,500 ppm. The whole day refers to normal school hours (i.e. 9.00am to 3.30pm) and includes unoccupied periods such as lunch breaks. Canadian standards limit carbon dioxide to 3500 ppm. OSHA limits carbon dioxide concentration in the workplace to 5,000 ppm for prolonged periods, and 35,000 ppm for 15 minutes. Exhaust gas leakages can occur from furnace metal exhaust pipes that lead to the chimney when there are leaks in the pipe and the pipe gas flow area diameter has been reduced.
Ozone is produced by ultraviolet light from the Sun hitting the Earth's atmosphere (especially in the ozone layer), lightning, certain electric devices (such as air ionisers), and as a byproduct of other types of pollution.
Ozone exists in greater concentrations at altitudes commonly flown by passenger jets. Reactions between ozone and onboard substances, including skin oils and cosmetics, can produce toxic chemicals as byproducts. Ozone itself is also irritating to lung tissue and harmful to human health. Larger jets have ozone filters to reduce the cabin concentration to safer and more comfortable levels.
Outdoor air used for ventilation may have sufficient ozone to react with common indoor pollutants as well as skin oils and other common indoor air chemicals or surfaces. Particular concern is warranted when using "green" cleaning products based on citrus or terpene extracts as these chemicals react very quickly with ozone to form toxic and irritating chemicals as well as fine and ultrafine particles. Ventilation with outdoor air containing elevated ozone concentrations may complicate remediation attempts.
A major source of indoor air pollution in developing countries is the burning of biomass (e.g. wood, charcoal, dung, or crop residue) for heating and cooking. The resulting exposure to high levels of particulate matter resulted in between 1.5 million and 2 million deaths in 2000.
Houseplants can reduce components of indoor air pollution, paricularly volatile organic compounds (VOC) such as benzene, toluene, and xylene. The compounds are removed primarily by soil microorganisms. Plants can also remove CO2, which is correlated with lower work performance, from indoor areas. The effect has been investigated by NASA for use in spacecrafts. Plants also appear to reduce airborne microbes and increase humidity.
The "green design" movement in the commercial and residential heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) industry emphasizes paying attention to the issue of indoor air quality throughout the design and construction stages of a building's life.
One technique to reduce energy consumption while maintaining adequate air quality, is demand controlled ventilation. Instead of setting throughput at a fixed air replacement rate, carbon dioxide sensors are used to control the rate dynamically, based on the emissions of actual building occupants.
For the past several years, there have been many debates among indoor air quality specialists about the proper definition of indoor air quality and specifically what constitutes "acceptable" indoor air quality.
One way of quantitatively ensuring the health of indoor air is by the frequency of effective turnover of interior air by replacement with outside air. In the UK, for example, classrooms are required to have 2.5 outdoor air changes per hour. In halls, gym, dining, and physiotherapy spaces, the ventilation should be sufficient to limit carbon dioxide to 1,500 ppm. In the USA, and according to ASHRAE Standards, ventilation in classrooms is based on the amount of outdoor air per occupant plus the amount of outdoor air per unit of floor area, not air changes per hour. Since carbon dioxide indoors comes from occupants and outdoor air, the adequacy of ventilation per occupant is indicated by the concentration indoors minus the concentration outdoors. The value of 615 ppm above the outdoor concentration indicates approximately 15 cubic feet per minute of outdoor air per adult occupant doing sedentary office work where outdoor air contains 385 ppm, the current global average atmospheric CO2 concentration. In classrooms, the requirements in the ASHRAE standard 62.1, Ventilation for Acceptable Indoor Air Quality, would typically result in about 3 air changes per hour, depending on the occupant density. Of course the occupants aren't the only source of pollutants, so outdoor air ventilation may need to be higher when unusual or strong sources of pollution exist indoors. When outdoor air is polluted, then bringing in more outdoor air can actually worsen the overall quality of the indoor air and exacerbate some occupant symptoms related to outdoor air pollution. Generally, outdoor country air is better than indoor city air. Exhaust gas leakages can occur from furnace metal exhaust pipes that lead to the chimney when there are leaks in the pipe and the pipe gas flow area diameter has been reduced.
The use of air filters can trap some of the air pollutants. The Department of Energy's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy section wrote "[Air] Filtration should have a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) of 13 as determined by ASHRAE 52.2-1999." Air filters are used to reduce the amount of dust that reaches the wet coils. Dust can serve as food to grow molds on the wet coils and ducts and can reduce the efficiency of the coils.
Moisture management and humidity control requires operating HVAC systems as designed. Moisture management and humidity control may conflict with efforts to try to optimize the operation to conserve energy. For example, Moisture management and humidity control requires systems to be set to supply Make Up Air at lower temperatures (design levels), instead of the higher temperatures sometimes used to conserve energy in cooling-dominated climate conditions. However, for most of the US and many parts of Europe and Japan, during the majority of hours of the year, outdoor air temperatures are cool enough that the air does not need further cooling to provide thermal comfort indoors. However, high humidity outdoors creates the need for careful attention to humidity levels indoors. High humidities give rise to mold growth and moisture indoors is associated with a higher prevalence of occupant respiratory problems.
The "dew point temperature" is an absolute measure of the moisture in air. Some facilities are being designed with the design dew points in the lower 50's °F, and some in the upper and lower 40's °F. Some facilities are being designed using desiccant wheels with gas fired heater to dry out the wheel enough to get the required dew points. On those systems, after the moisture is removed from the make up air, a cooling coil is used to lower the temperature to the desired level.
Commercial buildings, and sometimes residential, are often kept under slightly-positive air pressure relative to the outdoors to reduce infiltration. Limiting infiltration helps with moisture management and humidity control.
Dilution of indoor pollutants with outdoor air is effective to the extent that outdoor air is free of harmful pollutants. Ozone in outdoor air occurs indoors at reduced concentrations because ozone is highly reactive with many chemicals found indoors. The products of the reactions between ozone and many common indoor pollutants include organic compounds that may be more odorous, irritating, or toxic than those from which they are formed. These products of ozone chemistry include formaldehyde, higher molecular weight aldehydes, acidic aerosols, and fine and ultrafine particles, among others. The higher the outdoor ventilation rate, the higher the indoor ozone concentration and the more likely the reactions will occur, but even at low levels, the reactions will take place. This suggests that ozone should be removed from ventilation air, especially in areas where outdoor ozone levels are frequently high. Recent research has shown that mortality and morbidity increase in the general population during periods of higher outdoor ozone and that the threshold for this effect is around 20 parts per billion (ppb).
The topic of IAQ has become popular due to the greater awareness of health problems caused by mold and triggers to asthma and allergies. Awareness has also been increased by the involvement of the United States Environmental Protection Agency. They have developed an "IAQ Tools for Schools" program to help improve the indoor environmental conditions in educational institutions (see external link below).
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health conducts Health Hazard Evaluations (HHEs) in workplaces at the request of employees, authorized representative of employees, or employers, to determine whether any substance normally found in the place of employment has potentially toxic effects, including indoor air quality.
A variety of scientists work in the field of indoor air quality including chemists, physicists, mechanical engineers, biologists, bacteriologists and computer scientists. Some of these professionals are certified by organizations such as the American Industrial Hygiene Association and the American Indoor Air Quality Council.
On the international level, the International Society of Indoor Air Quality and Climate (ISIAQ), formed in 1991, organizes two major conferences, the Indoor Air and the Healthy Buildings series. ISIAQ's journal Indoor Air is published 6 times a year and contains peer-reviewed scientific papers with an emphasis on interdisciplinary studies including exposure measurements, modeling, and health outcomes.