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Is Your Office Air Killing You?


Do you arrive at work every day feeling perfectly fine and notice as the day rolls on that you develop a runny nose or headache or have unexplained fatigue? It might not be the job that’s making you feel bad. It could be the office itself.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which frequently releases studies and information on indoor air quality, even has a term for what your office is doing to you: Sick Building Syndrome.

The EPA explains that a person could experience a number of vague symptoms that are tough to trace to one specific source. These might include irritation in the nose, eyes and throat; sneezing; stuffy nose; fatigue or lethargy; headache; dizziness; nausea; irritability; and forgetfulness. These symptoms could be caused by any number of factors – everything from poor lighting to psychological stress – but when they go away as soon as the sufferer leaves the office, it might be time to blame the air quality in the building.

It’s not an uncommon phenomenon. The World Health Organization reports that 30 percent of new and remodeled office buildings around the globe are the subject of complaints about air quality.

And poor air quality isn’t just limited to work. “Good Morning America” recently measured the level of air pollution in a newly-finished baby nursery. After setting up the new crib, changing table, rocker and decorations, they found the air inside the nursery contained 300 different chemicals. The crib mattress alone contained 100 different chemicals and the rocker had seven times the level of formaldehyde recommended by the state of California.

At home, experts recommend airing out any new furniture before bringing it indoors, painting during the fall and spring months when you can open windows to ventilate, and using unscented products. They also recommend avoiding pressed-wood products and buying used furniture and accessories (that’s already been aired out at someone else’s house).

But what should you do at your office when you’re at the mercy of your employer and building managers?

In offices there are three main causes to poor indoor air quality, according to the EPA:

1. Indoor Air Pollutants
These include environmental tobacco smoke; asbestos from insulating and fire-retardant building supplies; formaldehyde from pressed wood products; other organics from building materials, carpet, and other office furnishings, cleaning materials and activities, air fresheners, paints, adhesives, copying machines, and photography and print shops; biological contaminants from dirty ventilation systems or water-damaged walls, ceilings, and carpets; and pesticides. Boy, that’s a lot of pollutants!

2. Ventilation Systems
For you, the office ventilation system might just be the source of background noise or frigid, teeth-rattling air, but from a health standpoint, it’s much more. The building’s ventilation is responsible for heating and cooling the building as well as circulating outdoor air into the building. If any part of the ventilation system is blocked or poorly maintained, it can affect air quality in several ways, including not allowing fresh air into the building; circulating air contaminated by vehicle exhaust, fumes or other outdoor pollutants; and spreading biological contaminants.

3. Use of the Building
If your office shares building space with other types of businesses – dry cleaners, restaurants, print shops, etc. – or if it has a parking garage underneath it, pollutants from these sources can find their way into your office. Also, it is important that buildings that have been renovated from a previous use – old factories, warehouses, etc. – into office space make appropriate modifications to ventilation and wall partitions to ensure that outdoor air is circulating properly.

If you feel like you’ve been sick for unexplained reasons, then it might be time to look at environmental causes.

The EPA listed both the short- and long-term effects of bad air.

Immediate symptoms:
Immediate side effects can show up after just one exposure or continued exposure to indoor pollutants, according to the EPA. Symptoms include irritation to the eyes, nose and throat; dizziness; headaches; and fatigue. These pollutants can also exacerbate symptoms from other diseases including asthma, hypersensitivity pneumonitis and humidifier fever.

Long-term effects:
According to the EPA, there are some effects of indoor air pollution that might show up years after exposure or only after repeated exposure over an extended periods of time. These include respiratory diseases, heart disease and cancer.

What to do:

  • Talk to other employees and your supervisor to find out if they are experiencing the same problems. If they are, make sure to document the symptoms everyone is experiencing.
  • Talk to your doctor and bring your physician’s recommendations to your supervisor, company doctor or HR representative. Speaking up about your concerns will hopefully spur the company to look into better air quality management.
  • Talk to your state and local health departments about your symptoms and possible building pollution.
  • If you can, take periodic breaks from the awful indoors and get some fresh air outside.
  • Consider purchasing an air purifier to use in your office or cubicle.
  • Work with your company to make sure you’re not being exposed to tobacco smoke from people smoking in or near the building.

The EPA warns that finding testing for and solving indoor air quality problems in a large office building can be a time-consuming and expensive process. But don’t give up hope – your job shouldn’t be killing you.

Photo courtesy of Stock.Xchng

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