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is a major public health problem that threatens virtually all workers in office buildings. Contaminated indoor air occurs when toxic substances combine with inadequate building ventilation, causing health problems such as eye, nose and throat irritation, sinus infections and fatigue. In most modem buildings, office workers have no opportunity to open windows or adjust ventilation systems to attempt to remedy this situation. Today most office ventilation systems are operated with recirculated air. Often these systems use less than twenty five percent fresh air intake.

There are two terms associated with indoor air pollution in offices:
SBS (Sick Building Syndrome) and BRI (Building Related Illness).

SBS (Sick Building Syndrome) is identified with symptoms such as head- ache, eye, nose or throat irritation, fatigue, dry cough, dizziness and nausea, and sensitivity to odors-all of which appear to be linked to time spent in the building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified.

BRI (Building Related Illness) is the common name for infections or allergic responses due to organisms (or chemicals) which grow or accumulate in buildings. It may be possible that SBS is a precursor of BRI-this means that if SBS symptoms are not mitigated, the problems may continue to intensify until BRI occurs.

Steps to solving your office air problems

Before you consult or call in professionals, gather as much information as possible. This could be done by using a health survey.

What office machines are, used?
What chemicals are used in these machines?
What office products are used that contain chemicals? List the ingredients.
Are there sources of pollution outside the building environment?
What are the carpets, curtains, shade and wall coverings made of. Do they attract dust or molds?
Are there any particular sources of stress in the work environment?
How many workers smoke?

A doctor's diagnosis is better evidence than vague complaints of headaches, fatigue and the like. The more documented the evidence, the better the case, especially if worker complaints end up in court or arbitration. But in instances of more general complaints, or if a doctors consultation isn't possible, the next best thing is a detailed day-by-day log kept by everyone experiencing problems.

Be persistent until you get answers to the following questions:
Who is responsible for operation of the ventilation system and for maintenance?
Are there any written standard operating procedures for the operation and maintenance of the system? If so, you should attempt to obtain and review a copy.
Is exhaust air recirculated? If so, what percentage of fresh air gets added?
What cleaning is performed on the air before it is recirculated?
Is the cleaning method capable of removing all types and amounts of contaminants which may be present?
How often does your system change the room air?

1. Does the air seem fresh, not stuffy?
2. Is the air free from unpleasant fumes and odors?
3. Does your workplace have a ventilation system?
4. Do you have a map of vents and ducts?
5. Are there both supply and exhaust vents in each work area?
6. Have you evaluated the vents to see if they are:
        a. functioning?
        b. operating continuously?
        c. unobstructed by furniture, walls, or partitions?
7. Does the ventilation system contain air filters?
8. Is the building's fresh-air intake located away from smokestacks, vehicle exhaust, or other pollutants?

What can be done?

There are a number of specific changes that can be made to improve the quality of your office air.

Regular maintenance of the ventilation system, increases in the percentage of fresh air in each air exchange and more frequent air changes are all positive steps to better air quality. Relocating roof intake vents where they will draw in the cleanest air available along with adjustments for more efficient cleaning of recirculated and "fresh" air may also help to eliminate problems.

Any office equipment that produces pollutants must be properly maintained. This machinery should be isolated and special ventilation should be provided.

Buildings can have volatile pollutants "baked out." This can be done by turning up the heat to maximum and venting the fumes to the outside over a weekend or longer shutdown period. Although cigarette smoke is a major contributor to the poor quality of indoor air, smoking should not be a cause for direct confrontation among workers. Another approach is to designate smoking areas within the workplace. With better ventilation, this problem can be greatly alleviated.

Strategies: Getting management to act

After completion of a health survey and a study of your office environment, meet with management. Present your documentation of the office air pollution problem and a list of demands to solve these problems. Include a deadline for action. If you have a grievance procedure file a grievance, specifying your demands as the remedy.

Once you have completed your own study you should consider calling an industrial hygienist from your union or other agency to perform a health hazard evaluation.

If you have a collective bargaining agreement and management won't make the changes you request, incorporate your demands into proposed language for the next negotiations.

Most likely, if you are going to make effective changes you will have to take some direct action to reinforce your demands. For example, workers could wear buttons which state, "We Want Fresh Air ... Not Hot Air." Remember, change often takes time. Working together, you and your fellow workers can make the changes you need to improve the quality of your office air.

Copies of Indoor Air Health Surveys can be obtained from SEMCOSH.

Common Office Toxins

Duplicating machines solvent
Hazard: Ammonia and Methanol
Effect: Irritation to eyes, nose, throat

Ventilation shafts, ceilings or ceiling tiles
Hazard: Asbestos
Effect: Mesothelioma (tumors), cancer- asbestosis (from high exposure)

Rubber cement and some cleaners, stencil fluid, copier toner, liquid eraser
Hazard: Benzene and Toulene
Effect: Drowsiness, headaches, dizziness, liver damage. Benzene has been linked to leukemia and other blood disorders

Adhesives, waxes, inks, rubber carbon, typewriter ribbons, photocopying papers, cleaning fluids Hazard: Common office irritants
Effect: Skin problems, dermatitis, allergic reactions.

Insulation, glues in new carpeting, building materials
Hazard: Formaldehyde
Effect: Irritation of eyes, nose, mouth, throat, allergic reactions. Suspected cancer-causing agent.

Copying machines, electrical equipment
Hazard: Ozones
Effect: Irritation to eyes, nose, throat, coughing, chest pains, drowsiness, headaches.

Correcting fluids, inks, adhesives, compounds
Hazard: Trichlorethylene
Effect: Lower levels - headaches, fatigue, dermatitis. Higher levels nausea, vomiting, confusion.

Toner in photocopying machines
Hazard: Trinitro-fluorenone (TFN) & Nitropyrenes
Effect: Suspected cancer-causing agent.

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