According to the Environmental Protection Agency, people spend 90% of their time indoors, where air pollution levels can be 2 to 5 times more polluted, and in some cases 100 times more polluted, than outdoor air. Most of our exposure to environmental pollutants occurs by breathing the air indoors. These pollutants can trigger allergies, asthma, and other respiratory problems in many people and they come from activities, products, and materials we use every day.
Indoor air quality (IAQ) is a significant concern, as noted by GreenGuard.org — because when the hours spent sleeping, working in offices or at school are added up, people on average spend the vast majority of their time indoors where they are repeatedly exposed to indoor air pollutants. In fact, it’s estimated that the average person receives 72% of their chemical exposure at home!
The primary sources of indoor exposure to airborne chemicals are products used in interior environments, including furnishings, building materials and other household and office products, that can emit thousands of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and particles into the air. Of all the culprits that can affect IAQ, chemical emissions are the most harmful as they can contribute to a wide range of health problems.
As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out, asthma especially can be worsened by exposure to levels of formaldehyde. Formaldehyde can be found in an array of building materials and common household items from insulation and sealants to clothing and paper towels. The EPA names source control as the best strategy to reduce indoor air pollution and limit chemical exposure. Source control can include choosing to use products and materials that have been tested or certified for low chemical emissions.
Since it is impossible to eliminate mold spores, the best way to reduce the impact of mold is to prevent or promptly repair the moisture problems that enable mold growth. Airborne particulates can also come from dirt and dust that is tracked in from outdoors. Installing walk-off mats at doorways and changing air filters regularly are both good strategies to limit these pollutants.
Most modern buildings are tightly sealed and insulated to keep out unconditioned outdoor air. Furthermore, most ventilation systems are designed to bring in very little outdoor air and instead recirculate the indoor air that has already been heated or cooled. Installing a quality HEPA filtration machine into an HVAC system can help clean the outside air of allergens on the way into the building while also cleaning the air as it exchanges indoors.
Architects and designers can have a significant impact on occupant health by taking steps during design and construction to ensure healthy indoor air in the spaces they create. Good design, implementing smart construction processes, and specifying low-emitting products are proactive methods builders and owners can employ to construct spaces with healthier indoor air.