LIVING ON EARTH
Indoor Air Quality
Don’t Let It Make You Sick
By Will Archino & Cliff VanGuilder
Most of us live in homes with indoor air pollution, which may prompt those with health issues to ask, “Is something in my house making me sick?” The government regulates air quality at manufacturing sites and air emissions from factories, but there are no regulations protecting homeowners from living in a house with any type or level of air pollutants inside. Since every individual is different and reacts to pollutants in different ways, government agencies struggle to set guidelines on acceptable indoor air pollutant levels.
While we all care about air quality for outdoor sports and recreation, indoor air is just as important for good health when sleeping, eating, and spending time inside your home or office. Indoor air quality experts continually respond to calls from homeowners expressing concern about a funny smell in their home, or to investigate whether a health problem is due to or being exacerbated by pollutants in their home, or they know they have chemical sensitivities and they want to be sure their home supports their well-being.
There are both short and long term problems associated with indoor air pollution. According to the US EPA, short term effects can include irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, headaches, dizziness and fatigue. In most cases, whether a person reacts to a pollutant depends on individual sensitivity, which varies tremendously. Some people can become sensitized to biological or chemical pollutants after repeated or high level exposures.
Certain immediate health effects are often similar to those from colds or other viral diseases, so it is difficult to determine if the symptoms are a result of exposure to indoor air pollution or not. For this reason, it is important to pay attention to the time and place symptoms occur. For example, if the symptoms fade or disappear when a person is away from the area, an effort should be made to identify possible causes. Some effects may be made worse by an inadequate supply of outdoor air coming indoors, or by complication due to heating and cooling systems, or by overly humid conditions.
Some sources of indoor air pollution include Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and formaldehydes, which “offgas” from building materials, furniture, cabinetry, air fresheners, solvents etc. Even sealed cans can offgas so don’t store excess chemicals in the home. New homes in particular are susceptible to air pollution due to a combination of inadequate ventilation, cumulative offgassing of building materials, and problems such as improperly cured spray foam insulation or a malfunctioning bathroom vent. Indoor air quality can also be compromised by a gas leak, radon infiltration and mold infestation.
Long term effects can show up years after exposure has occurred or only after long or repeated periods of exposure. These long term effects, which include some respiratory diseases, heart disease, immune system complications and cancer, can be severely debilitating or even fatal. Therefore it is prudent to try to improve the air quality in your home even if symptoms are not noticeable or severe.
Mold can be found growing anywhere in a building where conditions are available and conducive to growth. This is most commonly thought of as water-damaged areas from a leak or flooding event. However, elevated levels of relative humidity, differing microclimates within a home, and varying dew points cause far more mold issues in buildings than direct leaks and water contact.
Molds reproduce by releasing spores into the air, where they drift on air currents until they land on surfaces. If they find hospitable conditions and take root, they begin propagating a new colony. All mold requires to grow is moisture and a nutrient, no sunlight is needed. Molds don’t just produce mold spores as they grow, but they also give off volatile organic compounds or Mold VOCs (MVOCs), and produce mycotoxins that are known to cause serious illnesses and inflammatory reactions in mold-sensitive people. The VOCs are mixtures of alcohols, aldehydes, acids, ethers, esters, ketones, terpenes and thiols, and are responsible for the characteristic moldy odors associated with damp indoor spaces.
Homeowners are often surprised when they are guided to see the mold that has been overlooked on window panes, growing on clothes in the back of closets, on wrapping paper stored in the basement, or on the back of wood furniture. Some more stealthy locations include behind wallpaper or paneling, under carpet, in little-used attic or crawl spaces, and under vinyl floor tiles.
Mold growth in the home can be caused by water damage, which creates direct water contact and/or elevated relative humidity levels in a space. The direct water contact saturates or semi-saturates the materials it comes into contact with. As a material dries out it passes through declining levels of saturation. The amount of saturation is referred to as the water activity level. Water activity is the measure of the free water in a system. A system is defined as each individual water damaged material. As these materials move from being 100% saturated to lower levels of water activity, conditions conducive to mold growth become present. Mold growth and activity continues to occur or potentially occur until the materials are dried to a level of water activity that is not conducive to mold growth.
Water damage also allows for higher levels of evaporation of moisture into the air. This in turn raises the relative humidity in the home. This elevated relative humidity allows condensation to form on various surfaces throughout the home as they reach their respective dew points. This condensation then absorbs into the materials or sits on the surface of non-porous materials creating conditions conducive to mold growth.
In New York, a relatively new law (Article 32 of NYS Labor Law), was passed in January 2016. This law requires that individuals and companies that assess, remediate, or abate mold on any project be licensed by the NYS Dept. of Labor. This consumer protection law requires that any mold over 10 square feet of contiguous growth that is to be professionally remediated has to be completely remediated by a licensed company or individual. This remediation can only happen after a licensed mold assessor has inspected the mold growth and has issued a mold assessment report regarding the remediation to be done. Then after the mold remediation is completed, a mold assessor has to return to the project, and inspect the work to determine if it was done properly. If the remediation was completed to industry standards then a clearance report is issued.
Before hiring a mold assessor or mold remediation company, make sure they are licensed and properly insured, and check several references regarding the quality of their work.
Will Archino and Cliff VanGuilder are principles at Arch Environmental Compliance Service Associates, LLC and VanGuilder Engineering, LLC of Burnt Hills.