Can a ‘Green’ Office Building Make You Sick?

FORT LAUDERDALE – South Florida workplaces today are going “green” – but breathing the indoor air could make employees “blue.” That’s because tightly constructed commercial buildings continually recycle the same indoor air, allowing bacteria, viruses, mold spores and chemicals to build up over time.

“Designing and building sustainable, energy-efficient buildings is vital to our planet’s environment,” said Traci-Anne Boyle, president and owner, AirQuest Environmental, Inc., a Fort Lauderdale company founded in 2002. “But once a decision is made to ‘go green’ the building owner, landlord or tenant needs to stay green. Without proper maintenance of air conditioning, heating and ventilation systems, these energy-efficient buildings could wind up making people sick.”

“We expect cases of ‘sick building’ syndrome to mount in the next decade because of these otherwise-positive changes in Florida construction practices,” said Boyle. “Proper maintenance is crucial to maintain indoor air quality (IAQ) when commercial buildings are designed to be ‘tighter’ to reduce energy loss.”

For the past few years, improving efficiency has been a priority for new offices, stores and warehouses in South Florida, including “green” projects that meet the Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) criteria by the U.S. Green Building Council. The benefits include less energy consumption, lower operating costs for owners and tenant, and far less waste during the construction process.
“Indoor air quality is an increasing concern as people spend more time indoors than in the past,” said Boyle. “Today’s tighter buildings are designed to reduce AC usage by keeping out Florida’s hot and humid air. But that could mean less circulation of fresh air and a faster buildup of any indoor contaminants.”
Boyle recommends keeping fresh air intakes open as recommended by the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) design. “Building managers and owners have been known to shut the fresh air intakes to reduce cooling costs,” she said.
Boyle says there are ways for owners and tenants to improve indoor air quality:
• Relocate any fresh air intakes to avoid pulling in outside contaminants from incinerators, garbage bins or loading docks.
• Follow the maintenance schedules on HVAC systems.
• Increase the Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) rating of air conditioning filters to the highest level acceptable for the AC system.
• Minimize copy toner and other chemical use in office space.
• Purchase office furniture with low or no formaldehyde and other volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions
• Use low VOC paints for remodeling or decorating.
• Vacuum floors using equipment with HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters.
• Respond to any leak in the plumbing system, roof or windows within 24 hours and thoroughly dry any moist materials to prevent mold growth.
•  Store chemicals in a central location with adequate ventilation to the outside.
• Use natural or organic janitorial cleaning and pest control products.