Tuesday, February 17, 2004 - Page D5
Bill Crawford has a way of simplifying things for homeowners grappling with the complex issue of indoor air quality. "If I threw a skunk into your house, would your first step be to turn on a fan, or would you get rid of the skunk?"
Mr. Crawford, a senior research consultant at Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., is among air-quality experts seeing increased concern among Canadian homeowners that indoor pollutants could be affecting their health.
"We get quite a few calls from people who just aren't feeling well, and are concerned it might be the air," Mr. Crawford says.
At first blush, the idea of renovating to improve indoor air quality is daunting but the starting point is largely common sense, Mr. Crawford says. Homeowners should try to reduce the pollutants in their home -- lose the skunks -- "or they are just wasting their time."
Old carpeting, dirty basements and mould generated by excessive moisture should be among the first targets. For those who wish to go further, there is a wide range of products on the market, including air-exchange units, HEPA filters, ultra-violet air treatment systems and heat-recovery ventilators, that all promise to improve indoor air quality to varying degrees.
Air experts and the health care community all agree on one point: poor air is bad for you. There is growing evidence to suggest that bad air quality can contribute to or even cause a host of long-term health problems.
Short term, there are many people, especially those with pre-existing conditions like allergies or asthma, who experience symptoms related to poor-quality air.
"There's no question, in the last two years, our residential business has doubled or tripled," says Frank Haverkate, who runs a consulting firm that specializes in indoor air testing, including the use of a mould-sniffing dog.
Jon Baswick of Allanson International, which recently launched an ultraviolet air-cleaning system known as Swordfish, says that the industry as a whole is predicting a 20- to 30-per-cent annual increase in sales of air quality-related products.
Mr. Crawford of CMHC breaks the causes of poor air into three major categories -- chemical contaminants, which includes gases from cleaning products and building materials; too much moisture and the mould that often results; and, other biological contaminants, such as dust mites, pollen and animal dander.
He says there is much the average homeowner can do to eliminate some of these causes, and he would start with the carpeting.
"Carpeting, especially carpeting that is 10 or 15 years old, is just a reservoir of dust and moisture, no matter how well you clean it."
Mr. Crawford says those affected by air-quality issues should give some serious thought to replacing their carpeting with hardwood flooring or tile. But, he cautions, that old carpeting has to be removed with care. "I can't tell you how many calls I get from people who just had their old carpeting removed and they feel worse than ever."
The explanation, he says, lies with the method of removal -- simply ripping up the old carpeting puts all the dust, chemicals, moisture and other contaminants into the air. Covering the carpeting with a sheet of polyethylene and rolling it up carefully can significantly cut down on the number of contaminants that become airborne.
Other steps Mr. Crawford recommends include cleaning up the basement -- getting rid of things like old newspapers and books, old paint cans or open cleaning products. Furniture made from composites, as opposed to solid wood, can also be a source of airborne contaminants.
Moisture in a home is also a significant problem because it can lead to mould, and mould spores can represent a significant health hazard. In the winter, the ideal relative humidity is around 35 per cent -- significantly lower percentages can lead to dry skin and other irritations, while humidity over 50 per cent is an ideal breeding ground for mould.
Mr. Crawford recommends homeowners concerned about the humidity purchase a hygrometer (about $20 at most electronics stores), and check their levels.
The CHMC has put together a book called Clean Air Guide, which outlines a long list of possible contaminants and how to identify and eliminate them.
Those who would rather leave the detective work to the pros can hire a consultant like Mr. Haverkate, who will do a complete environmental assessment, including a detailed list of what corrective action needs to be taken, for about $600.
Mr. Haverkate says that the homeowner or the average contractor can resolve many of the typical problems but if there is a significant mould problem, he strongly recommends calling in a specialist.
"If, in fixing it, the mould becomes aerosolized, then it becomes an entire house issue that's extremely expensive to fix."
Once the worst of the contaminants have been removed, homeowners can consider other options, like ventilation systems, heat-recovery ventilators, or air-purification systems. These can range in price from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.
The Swordfish system, for example, which cleans the air using ultra violet rays, can be purchased for $500 to $700.
From Monday's Globe and Mail
August 6, 2007 at 4:27 AM EDT
One morning 10 years ago, a Halifax-based technician for Environment Canada arrived at work to find a mysterious manila envelope on her desk. Curious, she turned it over. Out spilled a chemical filter mask accompanied by a note from her boss.
“This is for you,” it read. “You are expected to wear it.”
For years, Charlotte Hutchinson had been suffering from headaches and nausea that she attributed to her workplace. Her managers had bounced her from office to office in search of one that didn't make her sick. This flimsy plastic mask was her employer's final gambit, she says.
“Can you imagine how ridiculous you'd look walking around the office in a mask?” says Ms. Hutchinson, who no longer works for the government.
Frank Haverkate’s air quality equipment can detect particles one-50th the diameter of a human hair. (Aaron Harris for The Globe and Mail)
From the archives
Ms. Hutchinson suffers from environmental hypersensitivity, a condition that employers and even some doctors have traditionally viewed with some skepticism. But new research on office toxins is making Ms. Hutchinson look more like the office equivalent of the canary in the coal mine.
Last week, Australian researchers unnerved cubicle dwellers the world over with a report showing that laser printer emissions are as bad for the lungs as a lit cigarette. Toner particles join the cloud of invisible office toxins that researchers have been identifying in recent years.
The research paints an unsettlingly toxic picture of modern workplaces: desks laden with more germs than a toilet seat, office ventilation systems circulating noxious gases, mould spreading undetected in workplace walls, office chairs and keyboards warping muscles and bones.
Ms. Hutchinson's biggest problem was the air. Until recently, people with conditions such as hers were more sensitive to environmental toxins than any available detection technology. Now, researchers are using sensors that pick up particulate smaller than one micron, or about one-50th the diameter of a human hair.
“We're gaining a new appreciation of this invisible pollution,” says Karen Bartlett, a professor at the school of occupational and environmental hygiene of the University of British Columbia.
The problems don't stop at laser printers.
“We hear a lot of people saying they get headaches when they're photocopying,” says Frank Haverkate, who runs a Toronto-based company that tests indoor air quality. “Sure enough, when someone has a large job going, the [air quality] sensors go through the roof.”
The particulate floating about offices wouldn't be so bad if ventilation systems were up to the task of filtering it out. With up to several hundred grunts' living, breathing and sweating bodies in a sealed room for eight hours a day, office workers are almost as dependent on good air circulation as airline passengers.
Mr. Haverkate once tested an office where workers were complaining of persistent headaches. He found a cranky old furnace in the basement and perilously high levels of carbon monoxide. “I immediately directed everyone to get out of the building,” says Mr. Haverkate, whose business has taken off since 2003, when Ottawa passed a bill imposing a legal duty on company owners to protect workers' safety. “I had a headache for the rest of the day, and here these workers had been in there for weeks.”
Somewhat more benign are the germs swarming throughout workplaces. Keyboards, mouses and phones can be so loaded up with microbes as to constitute biological weapons. In tests throughout the Toronto area, Mr. Haverkate has found that most computer keyboards are more rife with microbial creepy-crawlies than bathrooms, a finding that props up recent research from the University of Arizona.
Mr. Haverkate also employs a thermal imaging camera and yellow Lab named Quincy to sniff out mould-infested walls. Moulds grow anywhere that moisture builds up, and their health effects range anywhere from respiratory impairment to organ damage.
The noxious air doesn't always come from within. Dr. Bartlett routinely visits workplaces where bad air is being piped in from outdoors.
Once she tested an office where the air was so redolent of styrene that workers were falling ill. Trudging outside the office, she found that the air intake for the entire office building was situated right next to a fibreglass plant. “They were having a terrible time there,” Dr. Bartlett says, “but they never connected the two.”
Work stress and illness
Even if our offices are clear of mould, printer particles and more biohazards than a medieval infirmary, we can ruin our bodies by sitting and typing improperly. Desk work flattens out the lumbar portion of our backs and distends the muscles in the area of our shoulder blades, giving the seasoned office worker a distinct pear shape.
And none of that even approaches the minefield of illnesses linked to work-related stress, which triggers nearly half of all new depression cases, according to a New Zealand study released last week.
“Work involves your head more than your muscles these days,” says Merv Gilbert, a University of British Columbia psychology professor specializing in occupational health. “It used to be an injury to your back that was the biggest problem; now it's an injury to your brain.”
Those psychological wounds can be traced to a variety of sources, but the most common factors in the workplace, says Gilbert says, are overworking, underappreciation and bullying.
Some companies in Europe have introduced stress testing for employees. But in North America, we're still lagging.
“Our health care system is woefully ill-informed about the workplace,” says Dr. Gilbert, who recently developed a free online self-help manual for depression in the workplace.
Considering all these office-linked maladies, cubicle dwellers could be excused for a hint of paranoia. The scare can go too far, however. “In some cases, these complaints need addressing, but in many cases, it's just a seasonal flu spreading through the office,” Dr. Bartlett says. “Hysteria quite easily takes hold.”
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