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Troubles in the Air

Is your workplace making you sick?


Published January 15, 2003 at 5:13 p.m.

Ralph Stuart is a detective of sorts, but he's no private eye. Private nose is more like it. For the last 15 years, Stuart has been the environmental safety manager at the University of Vermont. When there's something wrong with the air inside a campus building -- usually a foul odor no one can explain -- he's the one they call in to sniff it out. And with about 120 buildings on campus of varying ages, designs, uses and states of repair, Stuart fields these kinds of calls at least once a week.

Most of the time the problem is easy to track down. Often it's a chemical in one of the university's 500 laboratories that isn't properly ventilating out of the building, or a janitorial crew has started using a new disinfectant or floor cleaner. Occasion- ally, a mouse dies behind a wall and has to be removed.

But every now and then the complaints are more serious and persistent than just a nasty smell. Sometimes a building is literally making its occupants sick. Those problems can take months, if not years, to figure out, if they're even nailed down at all. In rare instances, Stuart, a certified industrial hygienist, can diagnose a building as "sick."

Stuart's first case of this kind occurred in Votey Hall after a 1988 fire caused extensive smoke damage throughout the building. When employees returned following the cleanup, Stuart began receiving numerous complaints, from lingering smoke odors to headaches, nausea and watery eyes. When it was discovered that diesel fumes were migrating into the building from a neighboring construction site, Stuart thought the problem had been solved.

But months later many of the building's occupants were still complaining of eye and skin irritation. "Every building has its own history that you have to unravel in order to understand where the air is moving and where the problems might be coming from," he says. "It's a full-scale investigation."

When test after test could not identify a chemical contaminant in the air, outside experts were brought in. Nearly three years later they finally tracked down the problem: Fiberglass used to dampen the noise of the ventilation system had been disturbed during the post-fire cleanup. It had flaked off, become airborne and spread throughout the building through the air vents. As people worked in their offices, the fiberglass transferred from their desks to their hands and faces and irritated their eyes. Eventually the building was thoroughly vacuumed and the problem corrected.

"Sick building syndrome" refers to a host of health symptoms that afflict a significant percentage of a building's occupants but diminish or go away when the people leave the premises. Sick building syndrome was first identified during the energy crunch of the 1970s, when many employers began reducing the amount of fresh air flowing into their office buildings in order to trim heating and cooling bills. It was also around this time that builders began constructing more airtight and climate-controlled offices, with windows that didn't open. Not until years later did they realize these supposed "cost-saving" measures were in fact creating more expensive problems for the building's workers.

Oftentimes the reasons behind sick building syndrome are never entirely uncovered and are complicated by several unrelated factors. The most common culprit is an inadequate or overworked ventilation system that is not drawing in enough fresh outside air. According to Bob McLeod, director of the Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Admin-istration, the federal limit for indoor carbon dioxide is 10,000 parts per million (PPM), but at about 1200 to 1500 PPM people will begin complaining of head-aches, lethargy, dry throats and "stale" air. The problem tends to be more acute in the winter, when Americans spend as much as 90 percent of their time indoors.

Sometimes the problem comes from a ventilation duct that is inadvertently sucking in outdoor pollutants like carbon monoxide, which can cause headaches, nausea, lethargy or impaired vision. After construction or a renovation project, new materials like adhesives, sealants, carpeting and upholstery can emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can cause headaches, eye or respiratory irritation, even nervous system disorders, as well as other long-term health consequences. Other indoor pollutants can include biological contaminants like mold, bacteria, pollen, or insect or bird droppings, which can accumulate in air ducts and result in a host of respiratory problems, allergic reactions, eye and nose irritations, or influenza and more serious illnesses.

How widespread is the problem today? Although sick building syndrome itself is relatively uncommon -- the more frequent diagnosis is "building-related illness," which can be traced to a single cause -- both represent the extreme of indoor air quality issues that afflict many American workplaces. In the last decade, buildings across the country have been diagnosed as sick, including the Chittenden Bank Building in Montpelier several years ago and even an office building occupied by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, D.C., both of which have since been cleaned up.

Today, the EPA ranks poor indoor air quality among the top five environmental risks to human health. Nevertheless, the federal government has yet to set mandatory standards for indoor air quality in office buildings the way it has for chemicals used on industrial and manufacturing worksites. Moreover, employers can be reluctant to discuss these problems with their employees, fearing negative press and the potential for lengthy and costly lawsuits.

Sometimes, the problem is not widespread and affects only a small number of people working in one particular part of a building. Consider another case Stuart investigated at UVM several years ago, in the Waterman Building. Four employees who all worked in the same room were experiencing acute health problems, such as rashes, flushing of the skin and headaches, whenever they entered their office. Oddly, no one else in the building was experiencing those problems and when the employees left the room, their symptoms subsided. So Stuart began ruling out the usual suspects, running all the tests he could think of, with no success. He even brought in nationally recognized indoor air-quality specialists from Harvard University with state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment. Still no luck.

Next, they replaced the carpeting and ceiling in the room, repainted the walls and installed all new work surfaces. Eventually the employees themselves discovered that their symptoms got worse whenever someone brought carbonless copy paper into the room. Although the problem has been stable for about two years now, Stuart admits that a definitive solution was never found.

Diagnosing a problem is made more difficult by the ever-increasing stew of toxic contaminants that find their way into our indoor environment, which the EPA estimates can be from two to 100 times more polluted than outdoor air. Currently, more than 80,000 chemicals are in commercial use in the United States, most of which have never been tested for their effects on human health. Amazingly, federal law requires no pre-market health tests or approval process for most of the chemicals found in a typical office building. Of the 15,000 or so chemicals that have been tested, few have been studied extensively enough to assess their potential health risks, especially their combined or cumulative effects.

Are people just becoming more sensitive these days to the implications of that new office smell? In a sense, yes. The National Academy of Sciences now estimates that 15 percent of Americans are unusually sensitive to common chemicals found in their homes and offices. Diagnoses of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity have grown so much in the last decade that it's now recognized as a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

In recent years, many architects and builders have begun to sit up and take notice of how their materials and designs are affecting people's health and comfort. The so-called "green building" movement has spurred a host of healthier construction practices that take a more proactive and holistic approach to creating healthy working and living environments. Green building practices consider all phases of a building's life cycle, from using materials that are less toxic to manufacture to those that conserve water and energy, to considering how materials will eventually be recycled or disposed of. Health facilities like hospitals and clinics in particular are becoming more aware of the myriad toxic materials present in their buildings and of how creating a greener environment can speed their patients' recovery, especially those with compromised immune systems.

Similarly, a group called Building For Social Responsibility has spent the last two years developing a green building rating system called Vermont Build Green, whose aim is to promote sustainable building practices in homes. The standards they've adopted are similar to commercial space standard, called LEED -- Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design -- which were used in such buildings as Middlebury College's Bicenten-nial Hall and the Vermont Law School.

Ultimately, what will also make for healthier indoor spaces is the occupants' willingness to call attention to problems when they arise. "The motivation is supplied by our employees," says Stuart. "When they're uncomfortable enough, they make sure you are, too.