What Are The Indoor Air Pollutants?

What’s at the root of the problem? What causes buildings to become “sick?” Indoor air constituents!  which can affect the health of occupants. These are divided into particles (solids or liquid droplets) and gases or vapors.

While tobacco smoke immediately comes to mind as an indoor air pollutant, since it is now heavily regulated in the United States, other constituents that have also been treated extensively in the press, such as asbestos fibers, radon and formaldehyde are readily recognized as contributors to the problem.

Allergens, such as pollen and mold, are well known to asthmatics. These components are often common constituents of air. When they attain sufficient concentration to degrade the integrity or quality of the air or to potentially cause health effects, they are referred to as “contaminants” or “pollutants.”

The relationship of constituent to pollutant is best summarized by the 16th century Swiss physician Paracelius who stated “Everything is a poison. It all depends upon the dosage.”

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a common constituent of air which is sometimes listed as a pollutant, but does not present a problem unless the concentration level is very high. CO2 does, however, serve as an excellent surrogate in testing for other gases produced or accumulated during occupancy.

The list of problem or probable contaminating pollutants is long. Cigarette smoke alone is known to contain 4,700 chemical compounds, including several that have been shown to be highly toxic in animal tests, and 43 suspected carcinogenic compounds. This prompted scrutiny by EPA who developed a white paper with particular focus on second hand smoke or “environmental tobacco smoke” (ETS).

In addition to establishing ETS as a potential carcinogen and an indoor contaminant of concern for young children, the document provoked the proposed OSHA ruling of ’94 and the subsequent tobacco litigation and local jurisdictional regulations. As a result, ETS is no longer as widespread an indoor contaminant of concern.

Some published papers on IAQ differentiate between contaminants and pollutants; citing a contaminant as anything foreign in the air or water and a pollutant as something with an adverse effect on humans. At this point, it seems to be a forced distinction.

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