Simply existing in the workplace is affecting air quality — and your health

In a shared office space, chances are you’ll be in close quarters with your co-workers. Scents like perfume, deodorant, and even someone’s breath can fill the air.

A recent study found when some of these elements are released into the workplace, they can impact your health.

A team of engineers at Purdue University in Indiana studied an office for a month to find out whether the air was being contaminated by the people who worked there.

In particular, researchers looked at volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air, which are gases that can be emitted by people simply existing in a space. VOC emissions associated with humans include your breath, sweat, deodorant, clothing and cosmetics.


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“If an office space is not properly ventilated, these volatile compounds may adversely affect worker health and productivity,” researcher Brandon Boor said in a press release.

How do VOCs impact your health?

Some of these VOCs have been associated with health conditions like eye and throat irritation, tiredness, trouble concentrating and in rare cases, even cancer.

Without ventilation, there could be cause for concern about indoor pollution, said Miriam Diamond, a professor in the earth sciences department at the University of Toronto.

“There are some offices for which the ventilation is not great,” said Diamond, who researches chemical contaminants in the environment.

People and their behaviour in a space have a major impact on the quality of the air, even with ventilation, the study found. Compounds from human breath, for instance, lingered in the air even after people left the room.

Thousands of sensors were placed in an office — a building called Living Labs on the Purdue University campus — along with an instrument called The Nose that can track ozone, carbon dioxide, aerosols and VOCs.


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VOC levels from personal care products were highest in the morning, as employees in the office had likely applied products like hairspray or deodorant. The more people in a room, the more VOCs were in the air.

The study also found compound levels were 10 to 20 times higher indoors than outdoors, and adequate ventilation was key to keeping employees safe, said Boor, an assistant professor of civil engineering at Purdue.

Sick building syndrome, a condition that causes respiratory problems in office workers, is usually related to poor ventilation when VOCs aren’t properly filtered out.

Employees are spending more time indoors than ever, and according to 2018 data from market research company YouGov, the average person spends 90 per cent of their time indoors.

The quality of indoor air has become more imperative due to living much of our lives inside, Diamond continued.

“You’re sitting in the same place for so long… We’re not moving around,” she said, adding that for the sake of energy efficiency, some buildings are sealed very tightly, trapping air inside.

Not overdoing it with scented personal care products, moving around the building and going outside can improve your airspace, she said.

Air quality could be improved: experts

Diamond says outdoor air pollution is heavily studied and monitored in Canada, while indoor air quality doesn’t get the same attention.

Some jurisdictions don’t have specific legislation that deals with indoor quality issues. But a “general duty clause” applies in those cases, which states that an employer must provide a safe workplace, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.

Under the federal Canada Occupational Health and Safety Regulations, employers must follow regulations that cover indoor air quality, including creating procedures for addressing employee complaints.

Building professionals are knowledgeable about indoor air quality issues, know how to provide guidance, and are confident about the air, said one 2011 study by the Canadian Committee on Indoor Air Quality and Buildings.

But there’s a lack of urgency to work on areas that need improvement, the study found.


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Employees can help create a better environment

Most offices in Canada are regulated by the province and safety regulator, while many employers or building owners will look at external guidelines from organizations, said Ray Copes, a doctor and chief of environmental and occupational health at Public Health Ontario.

But in terms of steps we can take to help control air quality, we can be mindful of the products we use, along with reporting any issues, said Copes.

“If we want to be good colleagues and consider our co-workers, one of the things we can do is make sure we aren’t the source of too many of these VOCs,” he said.

“We’ve got some control over what we expose our colleagues to, and of course, ourselves,” he said. “Pay attention to that and make sure that offices and other buildings are adequately ventilated.”

 

Olivia.Bowden@globalnews.ca

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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