Regardless of the size of your building project, indoor air quality is something that needs to be considered both during the construction phase as well as after the project is completed. The Environmental Protection Agency defines indoor air quality as “The air quality within and around buildings and structures, especially as it relates to the health and comfort of building occupants.” Below, we’ll outline some of the worst culprits contributing to poor indoor air quality and also differentiate it from outdoor air quality.
Firstly, while poor outdoor air quality is caused by factors such as the burning of fossil fuels, exhaust from vehicles, and deforestation, the causes of indoor air pollution are much different, and due to their being contained indoors, can be more acute in both the short and long term. And while not all indoor air quality is caused by construction related causes, much of it is.
One of the most harmful contributors to poor indoor air quality is asbestos. While asbestos is nowhere near as common as it used to be, it is not technically illegal in the United States. According to Asbestos Nation, “Although asbestos is no longer mined in the U.S. and its use has declined significantly, American industry still legally imports, uses and sells both raw asbestos and products made with it.” Because of the ability of asbestos to break down into microscopic fibers, its subsequent inhalation has been proven to cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis. And while you’re unlikely to find it in new construction, it can certainly creep up in older buildings - something important to keep in mind if you’re flipping older homes.
Another indoor pollutant to look out for when dealing with older properties is lead. Up until the late 1970s, lead was a very common ingredient in most household paints, which means that many older homes still contain lead within their walls. Old plumbing pipes and leaded windows may also contain lead. According to the CDC, “Exposure to high levels of lead may cause anemia, weakness, and kidney and brain damage.”
A dangerous indoor air pollutant that isn’t as rare as lead or asbestos is formaldehyde, which can be a byproduct of many construction materials currently being used. Formaldehyde can be found in foam insulation, particle board, wood flooring, and many common adhesives used in construction. Daniel H. Anna, president of the American Industrial Hygiene Association, states that “Exposure to elevated airborne concentrations of formaldehyde may result in headaches or irritation of the throat and eyes. In certain instances, exposure to elevated airborne concentrations of formaldehyde may also cause respiratory issues, including asthma.” Other sources of indoor air pollution not directly related to construction are household cleaning products, carbon monoxide, and mold.
When embarking on new builds, there are things that can be done to minimize the air pollution on site affecting both the construction crew, as well as the home’s occupants once construction is complete. Using green materials is the best way to eliminate on site air pollution. Things like recycled steel, bamboo, rammed earth, and prefabricated panels all reduce the amount of air pollution on a building site, and this directly benefits the crew, the future homeowners, and the planet.