How to combat IAQ problems

A practical guide
Monday, September 24, 2012
By Craig Jobber

One of the biggest issues facing condo management and occupants alike is the grim shortage of qualified, educated property managers. This is especially true in Canada’s large urban centres; there are more than 275 new towers and projects currently on the books and no readily available supply of experienced property managers to fill the already vacant positions.

As a result, these positions are filled with well-meaning qualified men and women who are trying their best to help occupants but who sometimes lack the fundamental skills necessary to solve key property management issues. And nowhere is that more evident than with indoor air quality (IAQ) problems. Unlike a faulty elevator, dirty carpet or poorly lit parking area, most IAQ issues can’t be seen. Instead, these men and women hear of problems like unpleasant smells, people feeling sick or having trouble breathing.

Today, it’s not enough to understand building maintenance; property managers need to also understand the need to maintain a building’s supply of healthy air. And the best way to learn to combat these unseen but real problems is to follow these three steps and become an IAQ guru – or at least an IAQ guru-in-training.

1. Listen carefully to the symptoms
The incidences of allergy and asthma suffering in buildings have reached epidemic proportions. It’s now been given a name: sick building syndrome.

Because of Canada’s extreme annual temperature swings, developers have built tighter, better insulated and more energy-efficient condos to save on heating and cooling costs. But that’s resulted in trapping existing air inside and re-circulating it over and over. It becomes air which will make the young, old and people of any age that are sensitive to respiratory issues at risk to develop very serious problems.

If occupants are complaining about eye, nose or throat irritation, headaches, fatigue, reduced concentration, dry skin or nose bleeds, something in the air is at fault. Or if condensation is forming around windows or on ceilings or pipes, there are IAQ issues surfacing.

2. Know what’s causing the problem
Tightly sealed buildings result in a build-up of things that are invisible to the naked eye and that are the cause of most IAQ health problems.

Dust (or particulates) originates from many indoor and outdoor sources. Since dust is small enough to be in the air people breathe, it can irritate the respiratory system, eyes and skin. While the air supply inside is filtered, the indoor dust levels still might be higher than outdoors. Have the particulates in the building measured by an expert to determine if it’s a cause of IAQ problems.

Microbials are a natural part of the world. But too much of anything can be a problem. Bacteria (from human and water sources), fungi (think plants, soil and foods), viruses (carried by humans and animals) and allergens/antigens (from cockroaches, mites, mice, birds, bats and pets) can also be in the air. Ready to pounce on unsuspecting occupants, microbials need to be cleaned from the air just like dirt on a floor.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) result when chemicals present in synthetic, man-made materials enter the air. This is called off-gassing. The sources of VOCs are numerous. Structural materials (particle board, glue and paint), furnishings (carpet, computers and furniture), consumer products (including cleaning agents, waxes, perfume and shampoo) as well as pesticides and disinfectants can all contribute to VOCs in the air.

Condo owners can also contribute to poor IAQ. Cooking adds spices and aromas to the air that others may find unpleasant. Empty-nesters moving into cramped spaces with furniture from previous larger homes create a haven for trapped, poorly circulated air. And smokers add particulates into the air.

3. Know when to call in the experts
Property managers try to be jack-of-all-trades. But there are times they need to call in a licensed electrician, plumber or other trade professional. And there are times a property manager will need an IAQ expert to help resolve indoor air quality issues for the health of condo owners as well as any children in the building.

Craig Jobber is the founder of the Healthy Indoors Partnership (HIP), which brings industry, government and non-government organizations together to identify, develop and implement activities designed to create healthier indoor environments in Canada.

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