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What’s Your I(A)Q?

By Ed McClure and Beau Brincefield
The NVAR Update
January 2002

What is it?

“IAQ” stands for “Indoor Air Quality”. Sometimes the quality of the air indoors is worse than that outside. Indoor 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, 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. 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.

Why should we care?

First, bad IAQ can make people temporarily ill, permanently injure them, or even kill them. Second, those people are suing building owners, management companies, architects, engineers, general contractors, HVAC and other contractors, and manufacturers. Owners are suing everyone downstream. IAQ problems come from a variety of sources:

Design, construction, and installation

The leading design problem is poor ventilation. A “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 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.


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. Fumes from commercial cleaning products and pesticides used in common areas can be sucked inside.


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, 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 we have an IAQ problem?

The best way to find out is through routine inspections. Some problems, such as radon, can be checked out once, when a building is first occupied. Other problems develop over time, and require periodic checks of HVAC ducts, crawl spaces, attics, and building exterior envelopes. The least desirable way to find out about your IAQ problem is when people start getting sick. Unfortunately, sometimes, this will be the only way you find out. Keep track of unexplained illnesses, and if an occupant is diagnosed with a building-related illness or sick building syndrome, start looking for sources throughout your buildings.

What can we do about our IAQ problems?

For sources under the occupants’ control, follow product safety instructions and allow plenty of ventilation. Building maintenance can help by 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 people in certain areas start getting sick repeatedly in the same or similar way, don’t stick your head in the sand. If you are on the Board of a community association, explain your concerns to the other Board members. Consult with an IAQ expert. Typically, an IAQ will inspect potential sources, recommend remedial measures, if necessary, and serve as a credible expert witness for you. Your IAQ expert and your attorney will be able to help you analyze the relevant issues.

If you 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, don’t delay in investigating and documenting any IAQ problems you may have. Delay will impair your ability to gather information, allow further injury to occupants, facilitate the ability of the responsible parties to blame other causes, give the impression that you don’t really care, and, if you wait too long, destroy any claims you may have against others due to legal limits on the time in which you can assert claims.

Ed McClure and Beau Brincefield are attorneys with the Alexandria, Virginia, law firm of Brincefield, Hartnett & Kahn, P.C.

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