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Indoor Air Quality

Many people are coming to the realization that the "Sick Building Syndrome" issue is sometimes more complex than originally meets the eye. Although "air contaminants" are often involved, we occasionally find that air contaminants are not exclusively the problem and occasionally, the air in general is not even an issue. Other times, the indoor air quality is a problem due to fugitive emissions of odors from “legal” marijuana grow operations, or as a result of soot and smoke damage due to wildfires, or structural fires.

We have solved "indoor air quality" problems by discovering that the sun was shining in on the office personnel, making them miserable. The "indoor air quality problem" was solved by simply installing blinds. In one notorious case, the "indoor air problem" was caused by a basement generator which produced an almost inaudible low frequency hum that aggravated the occupants, who blamed their discomfort on the air. More recently, indoor moulds (molds) have taken a high profile although their presence in a building is rarely responsible for symptoms. 1

Poor lighting, poorly designed furniture, poor labor relations, noise, and a variety of other non-air related issues can result in the lowering of occupant tolerances and an increase in employee complaints. As a consequence of these contributing factors, reports of discomfort in the work environment are ultimately blamed on the quality of the air. It is possible that seemingly unrelated factors may be contributing to the overall lowering of comfort levels and the raising of complaints.

IAQ investigations can take on many forms: Polyurethane foam insulation problems in private homes, industrial chemical exposures, swimming pools, athletic training facilities, schools and churches. FACTs personnel are internationally recognized experts in indoor air quality issues and have been involved in solving Indoor Air Quality problems in Germany, Mexico, Canada and England. Our Forensic Industrial Hygienist was the featured guest on IAQ Radio on September 30, 2011 and that interview can be heard by clicking here.

We have also placed a large collection of field photographs on our Facebook site depicting several field activities and IAQ investigations .

Indoor Air Quality Consultants
With the recent, and unwarranted, concerns for indoor moulds, we have seen a flurry of instant self-certified "indoor air quality" inspectors, who without any training may merely print a certificate and declare themselves a “Certified Mould Inspector” or "Baubiologist" or IAQ Specialist." These individuals generally run around collecting meaningless “samples” and perform uninterpretable “tests.” More recently, we have now seen these same individuals identifying themselves under a variety of “Certified" indoor air quality titles and bearing an host of other “certificates.” In fact, like “Certified Mould Inspectors” there is no recognized body that oversees, these “certificates” and anyone without any legitimate knowledge or training may simply declare themselves “certified.” Not surprising, the primary activity of these individuals is to run around collecting meaningless “air samples” (which almost always include moulds).

More recently, we have seen a new type of charlatan called "Baubiologists." The practice of "baubiology" (or "building biology") is essentially a junk-science religion that is based on a belief system that is not supportable by science. Frequently, the "baubiologist" will frighten their victims with junk-science claims that dangerous electromagnetic fields (EMFs) are invading the home environment.

As a general rule, legitimate professionals involved in Indoor Air Quality investigations (such as Industrial Hygienists, Construction Engineers, and professional furnace maintenance personnel), are never identified with fancy sounding “certified” indoor air quality titles. And yet, these are the consultants most proficient in solving IAQ and IEQ issues.

Although occasionally, samples for specific entities are required, and occasionally testing the air is necessary, in approximately 80% of the indoor air quality investigations performed by FACTs, the problems can be identified and solved without the need for any kind of samples for laboratory analysis. More typically, where the problem can be solved, it can be solved on an initial visit, following a thorough walkthrough of the structure, during which time, some simple matrices may be measured.

Where an illness is reported by a building occupant, it is possible that there exists an airborne etiological agent in a building which may have contributed (at least some degree) to the illness. However, too often, medical staff are too quick to blame a work environment without justification.

In one project, an office worker was diagnosed as having sarcoidosis. Without any rationale or foundation, the attending physician informed his patient that her work environment was to blame for the condition. Given that sarcoidosis is a medical enigma (the exact etiology is not known), there was no scientific or medical reason to blame the workplace. However, the MD’s statement obviously alarmed the office personnel and unfairly placed the building management in an unwinnable position. Subsequent investigations by FACT’s Industrial Hygienist revealed that the indoor environment was perfectly acceptable and the physician was challenged to support his conclusion – which he eventually retracted, and admitted that he should not have drawn an unsupported conclusion.

The point here is not to criticize the medical profession, but rather to note that all too often it is too easy to merely blame the working environment, without any decision making process or investigation.

Armed with a medical diagnosis, however, the Industrial Hygienist is greatly aided in identifying the specific etiological agent for an illness. If the problem is described as an allergy without information from the allergist, the situation becomes more complicated. It has been estimated that between 10% and 20% of the U.S. population exhibits an allergic reaction to something. Therefore, if the physician informs us that the occupant is allergic to “mould,” there is not much information in the diagnosis. However, if the physician states the occupant is allergic to Memnoniella, that provides us with an extremely valuable clue.

Unfortunately, in typical IAQ complaints, the reported discomfort is usually general malaise (drowsiness, lack of attention, etc.) and the etiology may remain unknown even after an extensive investigation. But at least a thorough investigation may eliminate many possible contributors.

In the case where a very small fraction of the occupant population describes the problem as "running nose," "itchy eyes," and other similar symptoms, it can be virtually impossible to find the cause or even confirm the cluster. In theory, the causative agent could be found in almost anything in the building: the carpet, small house-plants in the office, the dander of a co-worker's pet brought in on the clothes of the co-worker. The point is this: It is impossible to sample for everything that could cause problems; the possibilities are countless.

Therefore, a successful indoor investigation requires something more than merely collecting samples in the hopes that something will come of the results. IAQ investigations require an approach that is equal to the problem; an approach based on years of experience in the investigation of numerous situations.

Forensic Applications, Inc. personnel have performed hundreds of indoor air quality exposure investigations in medical facilities, schools, criminal investigations, office environments, residential settings, and industrial facilities. Our approach is one of complete objectivity balanced with sound science. We consider the entire indoor and outdoor influences, and how those parameters may affect the occupants.

Sampling is performed only where there are definitive Data Quality Objectives to be met. Forensic Applications, Inc. is well versed in establishing such DQOs, and has done so for a variety of high profile projects. For example, our Industrial Hygienist represented the law enforcement community and the Industrial Hygiene community in the Legislative Work-group for the State of Colorado and was the primary author of the mandatory assessment protocol 2 in the Regulations Pertaining To The Cleanup Of Methamphetamine Laboratories for the State of Colorado.

The objective of a general indoor air quality investigation is to determine the entire indoor environmental situation. The work is performed based on national consensus standards for specific conditions and contaminants. During our surveys, we identify obvious deficiencies with the quality of the indoor environment and provide a list of recommendations. Based on the information we gather during a site visit, we then begin to look for other, less obvious possibilities and present the findings in a clear concise fashion that, if necessary, is defendable in future litigation proceedings.

Recently, there has been much attention paid by the media to bioaerosols as the exclusive cause of illness in buildings. But bioaerosols such as Penicillium, Cladosporium and others have been shown not to constitute a health hazard even at elevated concentrations. Admittedly, other microbials such as Stachybotrys atra, Aspergillus niger and A. flavus are known to produce powerful mycotoxins, but these organisms are ubiquitous in our breathing air and the exposures to the mycotoxins are simply too low to have an effect in residential or office environments; the “sampling” performed by “certified mould inspectors” is never capable of actually determining the exposures in these environments.

Under certain heavy industrial exposure situations, exposures to moulds and/or their mycotoxins can become significant and must be controlled as any other industrial pollutant.

Nevertheless, where even one building occupant is hypersensitive to an immunogenic stimulus, a serious problem may exist. The immunogens may be in the form of paper fibers, plant residues, or even non-biological entities which do not act directly as antigens but rather act as haptans, such as formaldehyde. Therefore, indiscriminate preliminary sampling for such things as cat dander, pollen or mould may result in spending a lot of money without getting any useful data.

We approach indoor air problems in a very comprehensive manner. Our investigations are exhaustive. We evaluate the entire working environment, looking for sources of problems.

Following our survey, the client will have tenable information which characterizes the environment for the most reasonable suite of potential problems. Where screening analyses are performed, the data are collected using state-of-the-art techniques and interpreted with the highest standard of care. Such screening data are presented along side national consensus standards for comparison.

Where quantitative sampling is required, we begin by establishing data quality objectives (DQOs) and develop an hypothesis that is to be tested and resolved by the sampling. Without such DQOs, laboratory reports are meaningless pieces of paper, and analytical results are merely numbers. Where quantitative analysis is necessary, we use analytical and sampling methods which have been developed and validated by organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and OSHA. We use only laboratories which have been accredited by the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) or have received national recognition in non-accredited areas of analysis.

In some cases, we must develop specialized protocols specific to the problem. For example, when the US National Center for Atmospheric Research was concerned about air migration patterns in its new laboratory, NCAR contacted FACTs who developed a simple way to model the migration of contaminants in the structure using helium as a tracer gas.

All of our work is highly confidential. Whether our projects are for law enforcement agencies, or homeowners, we do not disclose the particulars concerning our work to anyone (including regulatory agencies) without the client's permission, public domain, or during the course of legal proceedings. We report directly to whomever the client may designate.

Our Industrial Hygienist has performed indoor air quality assessments in Germany, Mexico, and across the US including work for the US Bureau of Prisons, the University Center for Atmospheric Research, the US Department of Defense, US VAMCs, and private commercial facilities both large and small as well as work for private homeowners.

Standard Scope-of-work
FACTs will usually tour the subject structure during normal occupancy to visually and chemically evaluate the surroundings. During this time, we request a member of the maintenance staff who has complete access to all parts of the facility.

During the initial tour, we inspect the HVAC system and look for common problems such as restroom exhausts placed at fresh air intakes and improper maintenance practices. We consider the possibility of microbial agents as we tour break areas, science rooms, gymnasia, swimming pools, locker-rooms, the roof, basement, and other areas. We will look for other common problems such as birds nests at intakes, mouldy or pollinating house plants, freshly plowed nearby fields, fugitive emissions from neighboring facilities, and new furniture.

During our walkthrough we consider lighting, ergonomics, and noise aspects of the environment. Although we may collect some air samples, we have found that the best information is usually derived from a thorough tour of the building.

During our visit, we are quiet and unassuming, causing no disruption to the normal operations of the building or class rooms. All of the instrumentation that we may use during our preliminary walk through is virtually silent.

Air quality in an otherwise uncharacterized building is usually assessed, in part, based on the concentration of common indoor air-quality surrogate indicators. Frequently, we measure the following parameters:

Carbon monoxide
Carbon dioxide
"Total" hydrocarbons
Relative humidity
Ultrafine Particles

Following the visit, we prepare a written interpretation of the data and observations. We describe why a particular analyte was sought and its significance. We provide a brief toxicological review of the contaminant, where the compound speaks to the issue of the complaints or illnesses at hand.

We compare the results of air monitoring with occupational limits set by national consensus such as the American Society of Heating Refrigeration Air-conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) for indoor air quality, ASTM (FACTs is a member of the ASTM International Committee tasked with developing new standards for the assessment of indoor moulds, and sampling protocol for airborne moulds)3, the Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH), and others. The final report provides a section on recommendations and conclusions and what follow up sampling (if any) is needed.

1 US Department of Labor, Indoor Air Quality in Commercial and Institutional Buildings OSHA 3430-04 (2011)

2 Colorado Department Of Public Health And Environment, 6 CCR 1014-3, State Board of Health/Hazardous Materials and Waste Management, Regulations Pertaining To The Cleanup Of Methamphetamine Laboratories: Appendix A Methamphetamine Laboratories Sampling Methods and Procedures; and Attachment to Appendix A Methamphetamine Laboratories Sampling Methods and Procedures /Sampling Theory

3 D22 Committee (D22.08) and Work Item ID: WK3792; ASTM Committee D22.05.06

Visitors to this page generally have an interest in scientific issues. If you are interested in such matters, you may find some of our other discussions interesting.

To visit our page concerning air monitoring aspects of moulds, click here.

For our discussion on the state-of-knowledge of the health effects of indoor moulds, click here.

A discussion concerning myths surrounding duct cleaning, can be found by clicking here.

For issues surrounding the history and cause of carpal tunnel syndrome click here.

For a discussion concerning indoor radon click here.

For a discussion concerning the myths associated with laboratory fume hood face velocities click here.

For a discussion concerning laboratory fume hood evaluations, click here.

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Originally created April 21, 2005 and revised last on October 3, 2011