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Waiting to Inhale: Indoor Air Quality

Reprinted from Update

By Ed McClure and Beau Brincefield
The NVAR Update
January 2002

Did you know that the quality of the air indoors (“IAQ”) is sometimes worse than that outside? Indoor air pollution is different from outside pollution – different sources emit different pollutants. Indoor pollutants include gases such as carbon monoxide, biologicals such as mold toxins, radioactives such as radon, chemicals such as ammonia, and particles such as smoke, dust, pollen, and spores. Inadequate ventilation makes pollution worse by not bringing in enough outside air to dilute the pollutants and by not carrying them back outside. High temperature and humidity make polluted air even more dangerous.

Why should we care?

First, because bad IAQ can make people temporarily ill, permanently injure them, or even kill them. Bad indoor air quality can cause specific building-related illnesses, such as allergic rhinitis, other allergic responses, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, “humidifier fever”, and asthma. Sometimes it causes “sick building syndrome”, a set of symptoms (asthma, nausea, dizziness, respiratory irritation) that affects some building occupants while they are in the building but go away when they leave the building, without being traced to any specific pollutants.

Second, because IAQ problems can destroy a sale and significantly reduce the value and marketability of a home or commercial building.

Third, because people are suing building owners, sellers, management companies, architects, engineers, general contractors, HVAC and other contractors, manufacturers – and real estate agents – over bad IAQ.

Design, construction, and installation

The leading design problem leading to poor IAQ is poor ventilation. A modern, “tight”, well-insulated building can trap pollutants inside and allow them to accumulate to uncomfortable or dangerous levels. The HVAC system, if poorly designed or installed, can trap and spread pollution and provide a comfy home for biological sources.

Poor choices of materials and equipment can also cause problems – many materials emit gases or dangerous particles into the air, including certain pressed-wood products and other building materials, asbestos-containing insulation, adhesives, and solvents. These can also lead to problems if floor or wall coverings are installed without proper ventilation.

Poor drainage and ventilation of unoccupied spaces such as crawl spaces and attics, whether due to poor design or improper construction, can trap moisture. Similarly, inadequate construction of building exterior envelopes can allow moisture under flooring and inside walls.

Moisture, darkness, and warmth encourage mold, and mold can be a real killer. Some common indoor molds, such as Cladosporium and Penicillium, broadcast spores that can trigger allergic responses and, in people with weak immune systems such as babies, lung infections. Other molds, such as Aspergillus, Fusarium, Tichoderma, and Stachybotrys, generate toxins – poisons – that can kill when their spores are inhaled. They can cause skin irritation, respiratory disease, cancer, immune disorders, and brain damage. These toxins are so powerful that many years ago the U.S. government decided they were too dangerous to use as weapons.

Maintenance, occupation, and time

Malfunctioning furnaces, stoves, space heaters, and fireplaces can give off carbon monoxide and other dangerous gases. Organic and inorganic dust and crud can accumulate in HVAC systems, spreading allergens and irritants and breeding molds and bacteria, and dampness accumulating anywhere provides them a good home. Dampness may come from roof and wall leaks which open up as a building ages. Combustion sources, such as oil, gas, kerosene, coal, and wood can give off carbon monoxide, other dangerous gases, and irritating particulates. Household products – cleaners, pesticides, air fresheners, and solvents used in cleaning, gardening, hobbies, and redecorating – can be irritants or allergens. Damp carpet, wallpaper, and grout can support molds and other biological sources.

How do we know if a building has an IAQ problem?

The best way to find out is by conducting careful inspections. Some problems, such as radon, can be tested even before a building is occupied. Other problems can develop over time, and require periodic checks of HVAC ducts, crawl spaces, attics, and building exterior envelopes. A home or building inspector should check these areas.

The least desirable way to find out about an IAQ problem is when people start getting sick. Unfortunately, sometimes, this will be the only way your clients find out. If an occupant is diagnosed with a building-related illness or sick building syndrome, your clients need to start looking for sources throughout the building.

What can we do about IAQ problems?

For sources under the occupants’ control, they should follow product safety instructions and allow plenty of ventilation. Routine maintenance should include periodic inspection and cleaning of HVAC systems, replacing filters regularly, periodic inspection of places where water can accumulate (and taking prompt action when dampness is found), and taking care when using strong cleaners and pesticides. Prevention is cheaper than remediation.

If occupants of a building start getting sick repeatedly in the same or similar ways, don’t let your clients stick their heads in the sand. Have them consult with an IAQ expert. Typically, an IAQ expert will inspect potential sources, recommend remedial measures, if necessary, and serve as a credible expert witness for your clients. The IAQ expert and an attorney experienced in IAQ claims will be able to help analyze the relevant issues.

If your clients determine that builders, contractors, or manufacturers created the source of the problem, let them know about it promptly. They may be willing to help.

In any event, advise your clients not to delay in investigating and documenting any IAQ problems they may have. Delay will impair their ability to gather information, allow further injury to occur, facilitate the ability of the responsible parties to blame other causes, and, if they wait too long, destroy any claims they may have against others due to legal limits on the time in which they can assert claims.

Ed McClure and Beau Brincefield are attorneys with the Alexandria, Virginia, law firm of Brincefield Hartnett Maloof & Paleos, P.C. Mr. Brincefield has been a member of NVAR for more than 30 years.

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