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Airborne Contaminants & Noise

A Guide to Indoor Air Quality Standards, Pollutants and Solutions

Revised: 5/18/22
Quick Tips #230.1

Indoor air quality (IAQ) refers to the quality of the air in non-industrial environments, such as offices, schools, and other such workplaces. Common air pollutants like viruses, gases, vapors and mold can reduce IAQ and increase the chances of short and long-term health issues for employees. OSHA notes that poor IAQ can lead to minor symptoms such as headaches or congestion, and in severe cases cause asthma or cancer. Know the common sources of poor IAQ, existing IAQ standards and how to monitor IAQ can help create a safer workplace.

Common Indoor Air Pollutants

Poor IAQ can be caused by inadequate and improperly operated and maintained heating,  ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems and a range of biological, chemical and particulate pollutants. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), common sources of poor IAQ include:            

  • Exhaust from fuel-burning devices such as generators or vehicles
  • Tobacco products
  • Building materials and furnishings containing asbestos, formaldehyde, pressed wood products, etc.
  • Cleaning supplies
  • Heating or cooling systems and humidification devices
  • Excess moisture
  • Outdoor pollutants such as radon or pesticides or overall poor outdoor air pollution

Some pollutant sources continually impact air quality and can linger even after the pollutant is removed. Other sources, such as cleaning chemicals or smoking, can periodically lead to poor IAQ.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are common chemical contaminants found in office environments. Examples include caulks, sealants, paints, adhesives, carpeting, vinyl flooring and even fabrics. If these and other chemical contaminants are not controlled IAQ problems can and do arise.

Standards and Regulations for Workplace Indoor Air Quality

Although OSHA does not have specific IAQ standards, it does have ventilation and air contaminant standards.  The air contaminant standards outline how long and at what concentration workers may be exposed to various potential air contaminants. The EPA provides strategies to improve indoor air quality, as does the CDC.

Many states have their own guidance or regulations regarding IAQ. Depending on where your workplace is located, these laws may apply. In California, for example, the California Air Resources Board sets regulations for IAQ in the workplace and requirements for green building practices that avoid potential air quality issues. According to the CDC, many states have also enacted smoking and vaping bans indoors to prevent secondhand smoke exposure and poor IAQ.

Helping Solve Poor Indoor Air Quality

OSHA recognizes the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health’s (NIOSH’s) hierarchy of controls as a way of thinking about and applying specific actions to reduce or eliminate potential exposures to identified hazards.  This begins with eliminating the hazard or substituting something less hazardous.  Next engineering controls (local exhaust systems,  general dilution ventilation, air duct cleaning etc.) should be used to reduce exposure potential air pollutants.  Then administrative controls such as policies and procedures addressing  work schedules, training and housekeeping should be considered. Lastly using proper personal protective equipment (PPE) to control exposure to indoor pollutants should be considered.   

OSHA cites data from NIOSH that attributes more than half of poor IAQ cases to inadequate ventilation. Energy-efficient building practices from the 1970s onward have limited the exchange of air with the outside, and if the building's HVAC system is not optimized, it can greatly affect IAQ. Examinations should start there.

Facilities should also constantly look for sources of dampness or mold and remediate them to prevent reduced IAQ. According to the EPA, mold is extremely difficult to eradicate, and can be invisible to the eye. Preventing moisture buildup in your facility can reduce the chances of mold exposure.

Facilities should be aware of sources of chemical pollutants (gases and vapors).  Five main categories have been identified: products used in the building, products that can get pulled into the HVAC system from outside the building, accidental spills, products used during construction activities, and byproducts of combustion. 

IAQ problems are difficult to diagnose and solve because of the number and types of common pollutants that can cause problems. There are a variety of indoor air quality monitors that can help determine the concentration of various substances and contaminants around your facility. If air monitoring is necessary, comparative samples from non-problem areas of the building are a useful tool in determining what the possible contaminants are.

Learn more about indoor air quality and how to test for potential air quality issues.

The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.


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