Poor indoor air quality, building design, interior design, building maintenance, micro-climate, smart design, fresh air ventilation requirements, air ventilation requirements, filtration systems, particulate removal, construction materials, United States Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, LEED, well building, BREEAM, Living Building Challenge, energy efficiency, filtration units, air filter

Previously an unnoticed hazard, the impact that gases and micro-pollutants have on our health and well-being wasn’t something we worried about. But thanks to technological and scientific advances we now understand that they do.

Indoor air quality has an impact on our health and wellbeing.
Image credit: Naava

Air quality is no longer something we can judge by our senses alone, especially indoors.

According to a 2016 Newsweek article, indoor air quality ‘gets about 100 times less research funding than outdoor air, even though the average American spends about 90% of the time inside.’ Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), particulates, carbon monoxide and radon are among the chief culprits for poor indoor air quality, along with dust, mould and bacteria.

Building design, interior design and building maintenance are key factors influencing your ‘micro-climate’. That is, the space in which you live and work, and specifically, the air you breathe. Optimising your micro-climate involves smart design, purchasing and an understanding of the air around you.


Building codes include fresh air ventilation requirements to ensure an adequate oxygen to carbon dioxide ratio. This is balanced with the need to save energy. A typical building recirculates air to reduce the amount of energy used to heat or cool outside air. In addition, filtration systems are installed, typically for particulate removal. (As described below, however, they don’t always work as advertised.)

Also, key to building design are the construction materials used. Regulations, such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) new Formaldehyde Rule (Toxics Substance Control Act, Title VI), are aimed at minimising formaldehyde emissions from composite wood materials, confirmed through third-party certification. (California’s Air Resources Board pioneered the first formaldehyde emission regulations for composite wood products in 2009 with ATCM 93120.)

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), WELL Building, BREEAM, Living Building Challenge and other voluntary rating systems have helped focus attention on ‘green’ building design. These rating systems seek to balance energy efficiency, fresh air circulation and indoor air quality.


Interior design and purchasing also play major roles in dictating what we breathe. Your carpet, walls, desk and the items used to clean and maintain the space all matter. Building products, furnishings and cleaning products can all emit gases that contribute to unhealthy indoor air quality.

Seeking low-emitting products is crucial to create and maintain a healthy and productive environment. This can be easier said than done, depending on the degree to which you control your work environment.

Fortunately, better productivity outcomes, such as those cited in a recent Harvard study, offer a great incentive for management teams to prioritise measures to improve indoor quality. That study linked VOCs and carbon dioxide levels to building occupant performance.

Participants in the study who worked in ‘green’ buildings meeting strong indoor air standards scored better in crisis response, strategy and information usage – 97%, 183% and 172% respectively.

Building owners and facility managers are also increasingly aware of low-emitting options, though you may need to make specific requests when it comes time for tenant improvements. Innovative solutions, ranging from the instalment of live plant walls to room-by-room sensors and apps, offer refreshing new ways to tackle the issue of indoor air quality.


Indoor air can be severely challenged when outdoor air quality is compromised. Such was the case in Napa and Sonoma counties in California over the past few weeks as fires burned through the area. Schools were closed in large part due to inadequate air filtration and employees at the Napa County Health and Human Services Agency, which occupies two buildings in a large industrial park in south Napa, were wearing masks indoors even as they were tending to the needs of fire victims.

Even under less extreme circumstances, there is no guarantee that fresh air is the same as clean air. For instance, as described in the 2016 Newsweek article, a school found its indoor air compromised by a recent cell tower installation. The cell tower required a diesel generator. Unbeknown to the school, the exhaust from the generator was being sucked into the school building, increasing particulate, benzene and arsenic levels.

The problem was only detected because an enterprising science teacher happened to be using a Speck sensor, which measures airborne particulate pollution, as part of a science project.

Operational windows are always a welcome addition; however, outdoor air in urban areas, especially near vehicle exhaust, may adversely impact the indoor air quality. Just last year in Portland, an art glass manufacturer was found to be the source of excessive levels of the carcinogenic heavy metal cadmium. Typical filtration units (MERV 1-4 ratings) capture particulates above 10 microns in size, but fail to filter VOCs and finer particulates (especially those smaller than 2.5 microns, which can lodge in the lungs).

indoors 002A proper filtration system is required at home or work to ensure quality of air circulation.
Image credit: piinme


Take these steps as applicable to improve your air quality at work and at home:

  1. Purchase the best possible air filter (at least MERV 8 or higher), and change out filters regularly.
  1. Look for products tested and certified to meet low emission standards, such as SCS Indoor Advantage and FloorScore, containing no added urea-formaldehyde, CA 01350 compliant or with health product declarations. Many of these certifications are recognised under building rating standards.
  1. Clean regularly to control dust, bacteria and mould and choose cleaning products carefully to avoid unwanted chemical emissions.
  1. Check the air outside before opening a window. Avoid adding unfiltered outside air in areas of high traffic or near manufacturing areas. The latter may require some investigation to determine whether manufacturers are generating particulates or other harmful by-products when operating.
  1. Ensure humidity, temperature and air movement are maintained at correct levels. Mould enjoys humid, stagnant environments.
  1. Speak to facility managers and your work management team about the importance of selecting interior design components that meet minimum indoor air quality standards.

Source: Proud Green Building