Chemical toxins can hurt IAQ

  November 5, 2012

Today's tip is to be aware of chemical toxins in a building's air supply. The sustainability movement among facilities addresses these issues head-on by encouraging building materials with few or no volatile organic compounds, proper procedures during construction and retrofits to protect indoor air quality, and the elimination of chemical products.

While the EPA is supposed to track the toxicity of materials, it wasn't founded until the 1970s, and many buildings are older than that. Also, we introduce almost 2,000 new synthetic chemicals each year, far more than the EPA can test.

What can you do? Bring in an expert to conduct a thorough materials audit. Make decisions about the chemicals you allow in your facilities. Many excellent websites provide free information on alternative building products for sustainable buildings, so get educated.

During a retrofit, how often do you review building-materials sources and toxicity tests? Manufacturers often perform material-safety tests in controlled laboratory settings. Dig a little deeper into materials' contents to be sure you are protecting occupants and visitors from chemical exposure.

Also, are workers who perform retrofits sealing HVAC systems to prevent toxic substances from infiltrating the occupied space? The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system offers one point for this critical, long-term health measure, but it is not a prerequisite. Take the initiative, and stay involved to ensure the work gets done.

Simply paying attention to a product's durability isn't necessarily the best route, either. New materials are usually durable because they contain more adhesives and chemically complex bonds. They are less likely to disintegrate or degrade over time, but maybe it's better to wear out and be replaced than to allow the harmful chemicals to remain in the building longer. Modular components can address this issue, allowing workers to replace just a small, worn-out portion of a larger system.

In federal buildings, 50 incidents of blindness, second-degree burns, and severe respiratory diseases occur every year due to mishandling chemicals. Do you have a risk-management plan that anticipates and tries to prevent such situations?

If mold is an issue, avoid it by providing proper heating and sufficient airflow, as well as sealing leaks, rather than using harsh remediating procedures after the fact.


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