Caution: An Ill Wind May Be Blowing in Your Office, Warns Building Doctor Gray Robertson

updated 02/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

It was probably the last place anyone would have expected to find air pollution. Yet last year, more than 70 employees at the Environmental Protection Agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C., suddenly came down with sore eyes and throats, headaches and coughs. The culprit, it is now believed, was new carpeting, which apparently released irritating chemicals in the poorly ventilated building. Red-faced EPA officials halted the renovations, and the health complaints subsided.

The starkest warning that indoor air pollution can be as menacing as external pollution came in 1976, when 182 American Legionnaires developed a pneumonia-like illness—and 29 of them died—after attending a convention at a Philadelphia hotel. In that case, the deadly agent was traced to a hitherto unknown bacterium that infested the hotel's ventilation system. Even so, "most people still underestimate the problem of sick buildings," says Gray Robertson, a British-born, London University—trained chemist. "Indoor air pollution is a worse environmental threat than toxic waste dumps."

Seven years ago Robertson, 48, co-founded ACVA (Air Conditioning and Ventilation Analysis) Atlantic to combat the hazard. For fees ranging from $3,000 to $15,000, ACVA's staff of engineers, chemists and microbiologists provide a diagnostic workup on a building's indoor air pollution and offer prescriptions for a cure.

According to Joel Makower, author of Office Hazards: How Your Job Can Make You Sick, Robertson "has been at the top of his profession for years." The man who is sometimes called the "Building Doctor" spoke with correspondent Michael J. Weiss at ACVA's headquarters in Fairfax, Va.

What are the symptoms of indoor air pollution?

Workers start getting sore eyes and sore throats, headaches and tightness of the chest and a general feeling of nausea. Gradually, these symptoms get worse until the victims think they've got an atrocious cold. A common condition called hypersensitive pneumonitis comes when people have a very severe allergic reaction to traces of pollutants. Once they've developed this sensitivity, they could have it the rest of their lives.

Most workers experience an occasional headache, eyestrain or the symptoms of a cold. When should they become concerned?

When you notice that 15 to 20 percent of the office workers are suffering at the same time, or if you feel particularly bad on Mondays or after a holiday or vacation. As the week goes by, your body can become used to the environment and then clean itself out when you're away from the office over the weekend. But if you return and get a severe reaction, or if you notice you don't have the same symptoms when you're away from the building, those are clear warning signs.

How widespread is the "sick building syndrome"?

The World Health Organization estimated this year that 30 percent of all modern buildings have indoor air pollution. After examining 270 major U.S. buildings, 90 percent of which were office buildings, we've found that well over half have problems. Office buildings have more problems than apartment buildings because they are less likely to have windows that can be opened and more likely to have furnishings made with synthetic materials, which give off traces of hazardous chemicals.

Why are people working in modern buildings particularly at risk?

When energy conservation became important in the '70s, builders started creating tightly sealed structures with budget-minded ventilation systems. Also, there was more use of synthetic materials and plastics in furnishings, carpets and walls. New buildings with dropped ceilings concentrate pollutants on people. There is also some truth to the belief that air circulation systems distribute cold germs.

What about older buildings?

Old buildings have better ventilation because their windows open and they have higher ceilings. But older buildings also have more asbestos, and they've had more time to get dirty.

How can rugs, chairs or drapes pollute indoor air?

That new-carpet smell can be formaldehyde or some other chemicals that are dangerous to breathe. Rugs are routinely treated with lots of detergents, pesticides and disinfectants. Drapes and soft furnishings get dry-cleaned, leaving residues of organic hydrocarbons that are released into the air. Since cleaning is often done over the weekend—when the ventilation system is off—these chemicals accumulate.

And tobacco smoke?

Obviously, smoke can be an irritant and a nuisance, but the main reason smoke is often thought to be a major problem is that it can be smelled. A 1983 study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found that tobacco smoke was implicated in only 2 percent of all sick buildings. Just the way canaries were once used to test the quality of the air in a coal mine, I look at smoke in a building as an indicator that you've got poor ventilation.

Is bad ventilation the major factor in sick buildings?

Yes. Sixty-four percent of the buildings we've seen have inadequate ventilation, and 35 percent of those operated entirely with recycled air. No fresh air whatsoever. That's like everyone in the same family washing in the same bath water.

Additionally, 57 percent of the buildings we diagnosed had inadequate filters, either installed carelessly or of a cheap and inefficient type. And in 44 percent of our cases, massive amounts of dirt had accumulated in all that ductwork. We've found rotting carcasses of insects and rodents, sometimes even leaves and vegetation. When the ductwork gets damp, it becomes a perfect environment for growing molds, bacteria and fungi.

Why do building owners and engineers recycle stale air?

They think they're saving money. A standard building of 100,000 square feet costs $50,000 a year on average to provide with adequate heating, ventilation and air conditioning. If you shut off the outside air, you can save 25 percent, or $12,500. But this is false economy.

How so?

Because what's forgotten is that in a 100,000-square-foot office building there are on average 667 people. If each of them is earning a minimum yearly salary of$15,000, that adds up to an annual payroll of $10 million. So even a 1 percent increase in absenteeism costs $100,000 in lost productivity. Under these circumstances, saving perhaps $12,500 by recycling air becomes a classic case of being penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Is there scientific proof linking bad air with increased absenteeism?

Studies done this year by the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., found that there was a 50 percent increase in absenteeism among people in a poorly ventilated environment. And a 1985 study by the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that absenteeism each year costs the country 150 million lost workdays and $59 million in bills from upper respiratory complaints.

Do office workers have legal recourse if they are victimized by sick buildings?

Private lawsuits are one answer, but they're very difficult to win. The problem is there are no standards for indoor air pollution on which to base a complaint.

Is polluted air a problem in private homes?

Basically no, but there are a few ways to protect your air quality. Look into your ductwork. Pull the registers off and remove the dirt with a vacuum cleaner. Put an exhaust hood on your stove to get the gas and cooking steam outside. Make sure your dryer doesn't pump air back inside. It's really a question of common sense: If you think the air is stale, throw open a window. The good thing about a home is that you can change the condition yourself.

Are there government or building industry efforts to regulate indoor air quality?

Very few. Currently there are identical bills in the two houses of Congress calling for passage of an Indoor Air Quality Act. It calls for a research program and creates an EPA Office of Air Quality. I doubt, however, that the bills will be passed anytime soon because the issue isn't considered urgent. For now, the only rules are building code standards set by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers, but I don't think they're stringent enough.

So how do you cure an ailing building?

It depends on the diagnosis. Given that 80 percent of the problems are due to faulty ventilation and filtering, the first thing to do is improve ventilation rates. Solving this can be as simple as opening air dampers. It is also vital to make sure filters are installed properly at the appropriate efficiency. If you go into a system and find you're up to your knees in filth, for heaven's sake, clean it out. Most sick buildings can be cured through inexpensive, practical solutions.

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