Indoor Air Quality

External resources

OSHA Technical Manual: Indoor Air Quality

OSHA Technical Manual: Ventilation

Guide to Mold Remediation (OSHA)


Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) problems occur in buildings where chemical and biological contaminants build up to levels that can adversely affect some occupants. The following are some commonly reported health effects: headache, nausea, fatigue, drowsiness, dizziness, respiratory problems, chest tightness, dry throat, skin rashes, dry and itchy eyes, stuffy nose, runny nose, loss of concentration and general malaise.

Workplace conditions such as noise, inadequate lighting, inadequate thermal environment, and ergonomic problems can cause discomfort that is sometimes falsely attributed to chemical or biological contaminants in the air.

In the past, symptoms reported by building occupants were often considered psychological because the symptoms seemed variable and subjective, and because an exact cause could not be identified.

Today, IAQ problems can be identified through workplace inspections and an analysis of worker health concerns can help in identifications of IAQ problems. It is possible to control many health symptoms through effective building maintenance programs and by controlling specific air contaminants and their sources.

This guide outlines the initial steps to address potential IAQ problems at CSB/SJU. Actual recognitions and control of IAQ problems may require specialists and a team approach involving complex measurements, analysis and implementations of controls.

Sources of Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Problems

IAQ problems may develop as a result of:

  • Lack of outdoor air for heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) system
  • Defective HVAC systems
  • Pollutants present in the outdoor air entering the building
  • Emissions from sources inside the building such as off-gassing from building materials, office furniture and equipment
  • Incorrect temperature and humidity control settings

Lack of Outdoor Air

An HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) system is designed to exhaust used indoor air to the outdoors and replace it with fresh outside air. The HVAC system filters out dust from the outside air, heats (or cools) the air to a pre-set indoor temperature, and then circulates the air through a duct system. Energy consumption (for heating or cooling) increases as the volume of outdoor air entering the ventilations system increases.

Other factors contributing to IAQ problems include:

  • Sealed windows that do not open
  • HVAC systems that do not draw sufficient outdoor air

Most IAQ problems result from VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and microbial.

Air Contaminants from Inside the Building

  • The following are examples of air pollutants originating in an office environment:
  • Carbon dioxide (CO2) in exhaled air of occupants
  • Tobacco smoke (now banned in all of our facilities)
  • Emissions from office equipment such as photocopiers, laser printers, photo processors, and carbonless copying papers
  • Emissions from carpets, carpet glues, furniture polishes and adhesives
  • Fungi and molds from damp areas and slimy, stale water in the air conditioning system
  • Scents from perfumes, colognes, and air fresheners
  • Body odors
  • Gases and vapors from cleaning fluids, detergents and VOC
  • Dusts and fibrous mineral from building materials

Outdoor Air Contaminants

Outdoor air contaminants enter the ventilation system with the outdoor air intake. Vehicle exhaust, cigarette smoke, and emissions from nearby facilities are just some of the air pollutants. It is important to NOT generate air contaminants near fresh air intake of a building.

Recognition of Indoor Air Quality Concerns

  1. Reporting IAQ Concerns.  CSB/SJU employees are encouraged to report any health concerns and unacceptable work place conditions. Common symptoms of IAQ problems are eye irritation, dry throat, headache, excessive fatigue, sinus congestions, skin irritation, shortness of breath, cough, dizziness, nausea and other symptoms of not feeling well in general. Typically people experience these symptoms when they have been working in the building for several hours and feel better after leaving the building.  You should request an assessment, if you notice any of these symptoms persistently. Reporting forms are available on both campuses. At CSB call 363-5985. At SJU the forms are accessible online here.
  2. Evaluation of IAQ Concerns

If health concerns and workplace condition reports indicate IAQ problems, the health and safety office or physical plant will evaluate the situation. Your concerns will be reviewed for patterns in:

  • Type of health conditions reported
  • Duration and frequency of occurrence
  • Location of affected people
  • Possible source(s) of contaminants

Any significant finding will be shared with you and other affected people.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Is indoor air quality (IAQ) a new occupational health and safety concern?

It is relatively new, but more than 20 years old! In 1976, industrial hygienists started investigation IAQ problems. Since then the concern persists and continues to increase. The origin of IAQ problems is primarily related to energy conservation activities. Causes of IAQ problems include:

  • Construction of airtight buildings which reduce energy consumptions by heating and cooling systems
  • Reduced intake of outside air
  • Construction materials, glues, fiberglass, particleboards, etc.
  • Increase in number of building occupants and time spent indoors
  • Increased awareness of potential IAQ problems
  • Media coverage of IAQ cases
  • Action by organized labor

Is indoor air quality a real occupational health concern or just a psychogenic illness propagated by some alarmists?

Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) is a real occupational health concern with a scientifically proven basis; however, it is rarely possible to prove that a specific health effect is caused by a particular workplace exposure. This is because people working indoors are exposed to a wide range of conditions at any given time. Symptoms are often due to a combination of exposures.

Does health and safety standard exist for IAQ?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) references voluntary organization guidelines and applies the general duty clause. This clause, common to all occupational health and safety legislation, stipulates that an employer must provide a safe and healthy workplace. IAQ is implied in the Building Code as design and operation criteria. Building Codes generally refer to the ASHRAE 62-1989 standard of the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).

Many other jurisdictions and voluntary organizations have recommended guidelines on indoor air quality.

When should I start suspecting an IAQ problem?

When there’s a problem with IAQ, people experience adverse health conditions such as headaches, fatigue, shortness of breath, sinus congestion, coughing, sneezing, skin irritation, dizziness, nausea, and/or irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. People generally develop these symptoms within a few hours of starting the workday and feel better after leaving the building.

Why do only some people develop symptoms?

As with any other occupational illness, not all people are affected. The more sensitive or more exposed people experience symptoms sooner. As air quality deteriorates and/or duration of exposure increases, more people tend to be affected more seriously.

Can one become sensitive to IAQ problems as time passes?

That seems possible. Some people may not be sensitive to IAQ problems in their early years of work, but can become sensitized as exposure continues year after year. Such people may be more susceptible to developing health symptoms as IAQ deteriorates.

What causes IAQ problems?

IAQ problems may arise from one or more of the following causes:

  • Indoor environment - inadequate temperature, humidity, lighting; excessive noise
  • Indoor air contaminants - chemicals, dusts molds, fungi, gases, vapors, odors
  • Insufficient outdoor air intake

Can we determine the cause from physical symptoms?

No. Different causes may produce similar physical symptoms. Symptoms only indicate that something may be wrong with the IAQ. All possible causes should be investigated.

What are indoor air contaminants? How do they affect our health?

Here’s a list of common indoor air contaminants and their main sources:

  • Tobacco smoke, perfume-from building occupants
  • Dust, fiberglass, asbestos, gas-from building materials
  • Toxic vapors, volatile organic compounds (VOCs including formaldehyde)-from workplace cleansers, solvents, pesticides, disinfectants, glues
  • Gases, vapors, odors-from furniture, carpets, and paints
  • Fungus, bacteria, microbial, mites-from damp areas, stagnant water and condensate pans.
  • Ozone-from photocopiers, electric motors, electrostatic air cleaners

If I suspect an IAQ problem, how do I proceed to identify the cause and take remedial action?

No single method can be prescribed. A common sense approach seems to work best. Refer to recognition of Indoor Air Quality Problems.