ATLA News
Newsletter Issue 8 No 1, February 1999 N

Indoor Air Quality    By John le Harivel

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It is now increasingly recognised that we spend anything from 75-90% of our time indoors. Increasingly indoors is an artificial controlled environment. Buildings are becoming more and more sealed and much commercial space, be it an office, retail outlet or hospitality unit, is air conditioned, often using air that has been recycled many times.

There is a direct relationship between unhealthy indoor living environments and 'sick building syndrome'. Sick Building Syndrome was first 'discovered' in 1970. Typical symptoms of sick building syndrome are lethargy, stuffiness, dry throats, itchy eyes, headaches and flu-like symptoms. Declining indoor air quality is an issue that is of growing concern and which can affect susceptible groups.

There are many indoor air pollutants, particularly volatile organic chlorines. Many VOC's and other pollutants are to be found in building materials. Typically formaldehyde in particleboard and carpets, solvents such as toluene and xylene in glues, paints and pesticides and as fungicides in paints.

The effects of more toxic indoor environments have led to an increase in asthma, cancer, chronic fatigue, chemical sensitivities and vascular diseases.

More and more chemicals are being used in buildings, either in the building materials used in construction or in the maintenance of the building, or in association with the machinery and equipment used. The increased level of pollutants is exacerbated by,

1. more tightly sealed buildings and air conditioning systems not being maintained or cleaned adequately.

2. the coating of walls and floors with plastic and petroleum derived finishes.

3. cigarette smoke, ozone from photocopiers, and cleaning products.

4. carpets and soft furnishings contributing to the chemical mix, either releasing their own pollutants or acting as a sink for others.

Commonly used chemicals in buildings and their effects are summarised below.

· Formaldehyde, found in paints, particleboard, melamine, carpets, glues and resins, causes eye, nose and throat irritations, asthma, lung disease and is a suspected carcinogen.

· Xylene / toluene solvents found in paints, polyurethane, glues and carpets, cause damage to nervous systems, liver, kidneys and heart as well as being narcotic. · PVC, found in vinyl floor coverings, blinds and textiles, causes damage to lungs, liver and blood systems and is also a carcinogen.

· Styrene, found in carpet underlay, fillers and paints, causes skin irritations, damage to the central nervous system, and is a mutagen and possible carcinogen.

· Isocyanates, found in polyurethane, glues and fillers, causes allergic asthma and skin and mucous membrane irritation.

· Glycol ether and derivatives, found in water based paints, varnishes and glues, have a toxic effect on the nervous and respiratory systems and kidneys.

· Epoxy resins, found in tiles, wood, metal glues, cement and used as a surface binder, causes allergies and asthma.

There are alternatives to these products but perhaps the first step is an awareness of what exactly goes into the many building products and processes that surround our daily lives.

Source: Indoor Air Quality Report: Selecting Products for a Cleaner Air, by Environmental Health Consulting, NSW, Australia.

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