Is your office making you sick?By Eminè Mehmet | Feb 13, 12 09:37 AM
You're in the office for at least eight hours everyday - it could be making you sick.
We are encouraged to have airtight offices to save energy. But this allows for a constant reticulation of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), particulates and other pollutants in the internal environment all of which are a health hazard to Human Beings.
These substances occur naturally in the environment as well as through man made activities and products. It’s only when we’re confined in a space with high concentrations for a long period of time that we may be affected.
With elimination not an option, you can reduce exposure by making informed choices.
MAN MADE VOCS
VOCs are organic chemicals emitted as a gas when they reach a certain temperature.
They are found in many products common to the office environment including:
- Building materials: carpets and adhesives, composite wood products, paints, upholstery fabrics and vinyl floors.
- Cleaning products: pesticides, aerosol sprays, cleansers and disinfectants, air fresheners and even dry-cleaned clothing.
- Office Equipment: office supplies, printers and copiers.
According to studies by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (2011), levels of VOCs can average two to five times higher indoors than outdoors. During and for long periods after activities such as paint stripping, levels may be 1,000 times higher than outdoor levels.
Common symptoms of exposure to VOCs can include:
- Short-Term: eye, nose, skin and throat irritation, headaches, nausea /vomiting, dizziness and worsening of asthma symptoms.
- Long-Term: increased risk of cancer, liver and kidney damage and damage to the central nervous system.
Use materials with low VOC content such as:
- Untreated timbers with natural breathable varnish.
- EO Board for kitchens.
- Low VOC paints.
- Low VOC carpet.
- Keep office supplies and equipment well away from workspaces.
- Chemical free cleaning products.
An air-conditioned environment can keep particulates constantly recirculating in your office. According to Bijlsma (2011), there are four groups of particulates:
- Heavy metals: lead, titanium, copper, cadmium, mercury, nickel and chromium.
- Toxic particles: asbestos, glass, pesticides, plastics and smoke or soot.
- Dust consisting of dirt, human skin cells, pet hair, fibres from clothing and upholstery, particles from insects, building materials and food.
- Organisms attached to the dust particles consisting of viruses, bacteria, mould spores, pollen and mites.
The most common health problem associated with particulates is asthma. A study by the National Health Call Centre Network (2011) shows that 10%-12% of adults in Australia suffer from asthma – one of the highest numbers in the world!
- Check to see if the vacuum used by your cleaners has a HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filter. This can trap small particles other vacuum cleaners would normally recirculate back into your office environment.
- The air in your office should be changed twice an hour. Make sure your air conditioning system is well maintained to ensure its effectiveness.
- If you can, reduce or eliminate the use of air conditioning and open windows instead.
This is just a snap shot of what you might find in an ordinary office. If you’re refitting a new office space, or refurbishing an existing one, you have the opportunity to create a more holistic environment from the ground up. Do your research and get expert advice - education is the key. If you’re aware of what’s going on in your environment, you can make the necessary decisions to create a happier, healthier workplace.
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Eminè Mehmet is an Interior Designer, Writer, Speaker and Sustainability Advocate. She is Green Star Accredited Professional, Fellow of the Design Institute of Australia and a past president of the Design Institute of Australia New South Wales Council. Eminè has appeared on television programs including “Bright Ideas”, Channel 10 and “Home” on the Lifestyle Channel.