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INSIGHT: Innovations in Indoor Air-Quality Monitoring Reduce Risks

Nov. 27, 2018, 11:56 AM

Americans typically spend 90 percent of their time in one of 4.5 million commercial buildings, so indoor air quality is an important environmental health area to address, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Advancing technologies and the public’s growing awareness of this health issue are driving an expansion of indoor air quality monitoring.

Low-cost devices coupled with favorable “green policies” and recommendations from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health are giving indoor air quality monitoring technologies the jolt they need to address growing public concerns.

While the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t have a mandate to explicitly regulate indoor air quality, it does field major education and advocacy programs on sources of indoor air pollutants, including asthma triggers, radon, and other topics.

During the past decade, significant innovations in technology have made indoor air quality monitoring available to residential or commercial and government building occupants.

This article identifies three major indoor air risks—small particulate matter, carbon dioxide, and volatile organic compounds—and examines their impacts on human health. Indoor air quality is also correlated with how well or poorly HVAC systems are functioning in buildings.

Particulate Matter

In the U.S., 8 percent of the population—or about 25 million people—experience asthmatic episodes. Common air pollutants such as particulate matter also are linked to low birth weights and birth defects.

Employers may be surprised to learn that respiratory illnesses such as the flu, pneumonia, bronchitis, and the common cold, which are all exacerbated by unhealthy air quality, account for 176 million sick days a year, according to a study by William J Fisk at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Anyone concerned with health stands to benefit from measuring particulates, the most dangerous being 1 micron in width, which can be absorbed deeply into the lungs.

To give an idea about just how small these particulates are, a single strand of human hair is 50 microns in diameter. The smaller the particle, the worse it is and the more likely it is able to penetrate the lungs and enter the bloodstream, circulating to different organs, causing inflammation.

Carbon Dioxide

Buildings sealed too tightly can lead to the buildup of indoor pollutants like carbon dioxide. “Humans typically exhale about 40,000 parts per million,” says Hal Levin of the Building Ecology Research Group. About 30 percent, or 1.4 million buildings have indoor air quality problems, posing an important occupational exposure consideration for millions of workers, according to OSHA.

Under the WELL Building Standard, carbon dioxide levels must remain below 900 parts per million for certification. One example of unsafe carbon dioxide concentrations contributing to poor indoor air quality is illustrated by continuous air quality monitoring at Starbucks, where levels exceeded both the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and the WELL standard. And even though every Starbucks is LEED certified, not every LEED certification requires continuous real-time monitoring.

Indoor air quality monitoring is not only important for the health of its occupants but also for the health of the building. For instance, 13 percent of indoor air quality hazards come from unidentified sources in a building, according to NIOSH. Indoor air quality monitoring can boost the health of the building environment by allowing spaces to be better equipped and flagging the need for properly functioning ventilation.

For example, a health-care organization was experiencing an overheating problem in its radiotherapy planning room that had an air conditioning system with a dedicated variable air volume (VAV) unit serving the room. The organization suspected it might have to replace the air conditioning system. But a site inspection confirmed the room was too warm. After two days of monitoring, consultants discovered that the carbon dioxide level was swinging wildly.

With this new information, the original system design was reviewed, which indicated that the unit should be more than capable of providing enough fresh air to control the build-up of carbon.

The client’s facility management department was provided with the new air quality data. They sent in a technician, who found a broken drive linkage on the VAV box and fixed it. A change in the room conditions occurred within 10 minutes. The room is comfortable and safe and the client didn’t have to spend $50,000 on a new air-conditioning system.


Formaldehyde is a type of volatile organic compound. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies it as carcinogenic to humans, the EPA lists it as a hazardous pollutant, and California calls it a toxic air contaminant. Besides causing respiratory symptoms, recent studies link exposure of formaldehyde at sufficient concentrations with low birth weight and other health problems.

Urea formaldehyde foam insulation, a thermal insulation product used in the 1970s and 1980s, was installed in hundreds of thousands of homes in the U.S. and Canada. The insulation was later found in some circumstances to emit high levels of formaldehyde.

Canada spent millions of dollars insulating 80,000 to 100,000 homes, then spent many more millions uninstalling it when reports of problems emerged. Canada banned the product, as did the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission in 1982—though the U.S. ban was reversed a year later.

The food industry continued to use formaldehyde for preserving dried foods, disinfecting containers, preserving fish and certain oils and fats, and modifying starch. Formaldehyde was found in Federal Emergency Management Agency temporary housing trailers and in Lumber Liquidators Flooring.

Today, the use of everyday petroleum-based household products emit volatile organic compounds at levels comparable to what comes out of a car tailpipe, according to a study by Brian McDonald with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences.

Formaldehyde also is used as an antimicrobial agent in cosmetic products, soaps, shampoos, hair preparations, deodorants, lotions, makeup, mouthwashes, and nail products. Some cosmetics have reportedly contained as much as 0.6 percent formaldehyde. Other products that contain formaldehyde include pressed wood, fiberglass, decorative laminates, paper goods, paints, and wallpaper.

Closing the Information Gap

With new studies emerging about the implications on health related to poor indoor air quality, there is a growing public demand for maintaining higher standards for the most shared global and public resource—indoor air quality—which will help individuals and businesses identify problems with their environments.

Historically, the intricate design of conventional systems contributed to high production costs of indoor monitors based on cost per unit. Unlike stand-alone systems, hybrid solutions facilitate the design and development of low-cost devices. With the advent of the internet, all devices are by definition connected to the cloud, opening up a new avenue for access to data.

In addition, cloud services create a bridge between people and machines, through the collection of enormous amounts of data from “things,” also known as sensors, machines, and devices, by way of the cloud, where data is stored.

A cloud-based solution with deployment of web-enabled devices also eliminates the once-costly installation, configuration, and calibration associated with conventional technologies.

For the first time, companies have an opportunity to collect quantitative data on multiple indoor air quality measurements simultaneously. But even with such advancements, few sensors produce reliable enough data to be used in studies or by government agencies. Compared to static monitoring, continuous monitoring enhances high temporal-spatial resolution and the ability to assess the variability of air pollution, which thus far has been a challenge. These characteristics, the level of accuracy, and the precision of the measurements are the distinguishing characteristics of indoor air quality monitors on the market that result in better and safer environments.

Today, the means for large-scale and rapid deployment of tens of thousands of indoor air quality monitoring devices has the potential to bridge the information gap. This would result in better understanding, more thorough assessment of contaminant exposure, heightened awareness of health risks, and a complete picture of the data to guide harm reduction.

Julie Spitkovsky is the communications and development director for Airthinx, Inc.

The opinions expressed here do not represent those of Bloomberg Environment, which welcomes other points of view.