We Americans spend 90 percent of our life indoors. More than half of that time is spent in office buildings, where we toil in workspaces filled with stale, recycled air, and labor under the glare of fluorescent lights, without sunlight or views of the outdoors. Nine to five, American office workers breathe in chemicals emitted from synthetic carpets, paints, office furniture and computer equipment, as well as molds and bacteria that slither through heating and ventilation systems. All of which can prompt sneezing, stuffy noses, headaches, fatigue, asthma attacks, dry throats, watery eyes—and even a trip to the hospital, as Joann Taylor discovered.
The carpet that lies underfoot may look harmless, but Taylor suffered chest pains and vomited so severely from breathing chemical fumes from her new office flooring that she required hospitalization. In 2000, the Ohio State Supreme Court awarded her an unprecedented $400,000 from her former employer, Centerior Energy, for forcing her to keep working in the newly renovated office anyway.
"I was coughing up green stuff for months at a time, and my nose was completely stopped up. I never had a sinus infection before in my entire life. It got so bad that my teeth hurt," said another sufferer, Susie Goonan, who took a doctor’s advice and quit her elementary teacher job. She took 36 prescriptions over a course of two years due to several problems—asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis and sinus infections—traced to mildew at Virginia Shuman Young Elementary School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The school wasn"t that unusual; one in five schools in the United States has contaminated indoor air, according to the American Association for Asthma and Allergies.
Given the less than optimum conditions of the contemporary white-collar workplace, it"s no wonder that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ranks indoor air pollution as one of the top five environmental risks to public health. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has estimated that among non-industrial buildings, indoor air quality problems affect a sizeable proportion—nearly one in three.
The air you breathe at work can be two to five times more polluted than the air outdoors, according to the EPA. Simply by plopping down into your upholstered office chair and spending the entire day indoors, you could be breathing dirtier air than the air that floats through large industrialized cities.
As many people are learning firsthand, they can feel ill even if a building isn"t deemed "sick." The health problems associated with indoor air pollution are often referred to as Sick Building Syndrome, a term that comes into play when office workers start to display common symptoms, only to have their health improve when they spend a significant time away from the building.
Employees at dozens of major U.S. corporations, including Levi Strauss, US West, and BP Amoco, have suffered from sick office-related illnesses in the past decade. Most people who complain to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) ask for "health hazard evaluations" for office buildings—not industrial sites. According to the EPA, sick buildings cause an estimated loss of $61 billion a year in employee absenteeism, medical costs, reduced productivity and lower earnings—not to mention legal costs. Mold cases have produced million-dollar court verdicts and some attorneys predict that mold lawsuits will surpass asbestos in case volume and value, according to an American Bar Association Journal article entitled, "For Some Lawyers, Mold is Gold."
"Awareness of the problem has greatly increased over the past 20 years," Tony Worthan, president of Air Quality Sciences in suburban Atlanta, says of indoor air problems. "People now understand the significant role the indoor environment can have on human health."
But for anyone who"s ever worked in a cubicle—never fear. A healthier office is on its way! Environmentally friendly building practices are beginning to penetrate the mainstream construction market; more importantly, the criteria for "green buildings" have evolved to include methods and materials that improve indoor environmental quality for employees.
A case in point is the Natural Resources Defense Council"s new southern California headquarters in Santa Monica, which Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio helped dedicate in January 2004. Called the "greenest building in North America," the gray structure earned a Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum rating—the highest possible—partly because of its attention to the indoor environment. The interior provides employees views onto the plant-filled terrace, uses zero toxic paints and finishes, and confines office machines that emit fumes to a single room that vents to the outdoors. By incorporating operable windows, skylights and glass clerestories, architects flooded the office area with natural light and fresh air. Cool breezes waft in from the ocean.
On the opposite coast in New York"s Times Square, the sleek glass and concrete tower known as the Conde Nast Building boasts 1.6 million square feet of "environmentally conscious design," which includes circulating 50 percent more air through the building than is required by law and using nontoxic cleaning materials. Such approaches are becoming standardized. The United States Green Building Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program for Commercial Interiors (LEED-CI), launched in 2004, includes procedures for maximizing indoor air-quality performance.
Eco-labeling programs since the 1980s have certified products that meet high environmental standards for use and manufacturing. Today, the burgeoning field of chemical-emissions research evaluates products based on their human health impacts. Leading the pack is the three-year-old certification program GREENGUARD, which identifies specific office products—from furniture to computers—that have been tested to ensure that their "off-gassing" stays within stringent indoor air-quality pollutant guidelines.
Following the city of Seattle, which in 2002 instituted the nation"s first municipal green procurement policy, public agencies and businesses elsewhere are also putting in place sustainability standards for products that don"t contain persistent chemicals or release pollution. They"re opting for non-chlorine-bleached paper, for instance, and building materials that don"t contain polyvinyl chloride (PVC).
What"s good for employees is good for the bottom line. U.S. companies could save as much as $58 billion annually by preventing sick building illnesses and an additional $200 billion in worker performance improvements by creating offices with better indoor air, according to researchers William J. Fisk and Arthur H. Rosenfeld of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California. Studies have found that the financial benefits of improving office climates can be eight to 17 times greater than the costs of making those improvements.
As Business Week reported, the U.S. Postal Service witnessed a 16 percent increase in worker productivity after installing skylights at its Reno, Nevada, postal-sorting office. At Herman Miller"s Zeeland, Michigan,
factory and offices, productivity improved by 1.5 percent after workers moved into in a "greenhouse" structure built around an abundance of fresh air, daylighting and views to the outside.
Think about the uphill battle health activists faced in their crusade to ban smoking in public and private buildings. That gives you a pretty good idea of the challenges associated with regulating other factors that contribute to an unhealthy indoor environment. Still, as concern about sick offices mounts, local, state and federal officials have responded with a growing number of initiatives governing indoor air quality. At the federal level, the EPA is conducting its first national assessment of the health of the country"s office buildings, which makes it the biggest such study ever. Since 1999, the EPA has also incorporated indoor environmental quality criteria into its Energy Star label program for commercial office buildings.
At the state level, California has enacted the nation"s most-stringent requirements governing office furniture emissions: government regulations require that furniture not release more than 0.02 parts per million (ppm) of formaldehyde within 14 days of installation. The state of Washington has also instituted a widely accepted program for the control of emissions from office furniture, a system that has been adopted by numerous other states, as well as the GREENGUARD certification program.
The last couple of years have been the most active in history for state indoor air quality legislation, according to AERIAS, an indoor air-quality information clearinghouse. Nearly 30 percent of the 60 indoor-air quality bills proposed in 2003 passed and became law.
Mold reigned as the issue of most concern to state legislators, with air quality and ventilation standards coming in a close second. Fueling interest in mold is the grim reality that bedevils too many workers. Some people at New York"s Westchester Community College in summer 2003 returned from vacations to find mold so widespread that it covered potpourri in their desks and slimed their wastebaskets, forcing the closure of several rooms. Union president Anne D"Orazio told the publication New York Teacher, "Men came in in space suits and said, "Get out immediately, don"t take anything.""
"There"s mold in the basement. There"s asbestos in the ceiling. The roof caves in when it rains," Sue Wright, a union shop steward, complained to The Trentonian newspaper in 2004 about the building she wants replaced, the Mercer County Courthouse in Trenton, N.J.
Mold continues to close classrooms in various parts of the country, and in 2003 sparked a lawsuit by two sickened United Airlines workers who blamed strong odors and high mold counts that forced the closure of training rooms and other areas at Denver International Airport. As much as mold presents a financial burden for taxpayers and insurers and health sufferers, the full impact of its future potential threat is little understood. The mold issue is marginalized in some circles, as hinted at by one 2003 journal article headline: "Toxic Mold: Phantom Risk vs. Science." What"s more, there are no—repeat, no—federal standards by any federal agency regarding airborne concentrations of mold or mold spores, according to OSHA. As the agency seeks direction for creating a standard, some states are considering their own mold legislation.
A sampling of 2004 legislative proposals casts light on the future of policies regarding indoor air pollution in general. In Pennsylvania, legislators considered setting minimum standards for indoor-air quality and ventilation for every place of employment. In New York, kids running around in day-care centers would benefit from a proposal requiring all new child-care facilities" heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems to provide quality indoor air.
Indoor air quality in schools has been a hot button issue. In 2004, a proposed law in New Hampshire would require the state"s Department of Education to develop and implement indoor-air-quality standards for public schools. A Missouri proposal would allow the Department of Health and Senior Services to receive and investigate written indoor-air-quality complaints from school employees and recommend to schools how to resolve the complaints. Rhode Island will likely reconsider a measure that would establish an annual school air-quality inspection. It also would set air-quality standards for heating and ventilation systems, as well as for a range of no-nos, including radon, bioaerosols and gases seeping from furnishings and carpets.
As a nation, we"re unlikely to change our workaholic ways. But as architects, policy makers and consumers usher in a new era of green building, it looks like one of the 21st century environmental frontiers will be inside, not out. With chemical-free products, fresh air, better cleaning regimes and maintenance, and a little common sense, the sick office is headed for a cure.
People who work in offices are exposed daily to 20 to 150 chemical compounds seeping from perhaps unexpected places—furniture, computers, paint, and, among other things, carpet. The installation of new carpet at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., led to an outbreak of health problems. Some workers collapsed. Some were rushed to the hospital. They were dizzy, nauseous. The building was evacuated several times. A study tucked away in agency file cabinets suggested a possible cause: the new-carpet smell, 4-phenylcyclohexene, a byproduct of the glue that holds carpet fibers together. Sure enough, those who were most ill worked in office areas where 4-PC levels were highest. After union pressure, the agency ripped out the carpet and decided that the next carpet would be free of the chemical.
This 1988 flap became the first highly publicized case of Sick Building Syndrome. It can serve as proof that when it comes to carpet, the healthiest choice is no carpet at all.
Instead, the best bet for decision-makers empowered with buying office flooring is to go with natural materials such as cork, wood, bamboo, ceramic tile, or natural linoleum, which is made out of linseed oil, pine resins and jute, a coarse fiber made from plants native to East India.
If traditional carpet is the only choice, don"t automatically assume that a carpet bearing the green label of the Carpet and Rug Institute means it was tested for all off-gassing chemicals. The Green Guide and Consumer Reports note that the industry program does not test for all volatile organic compounds. In other words, the green label doesn"t guarantee a healthy product.
The following guidelines can minimize health and environmental impacts of carpet:
"For minimal off-gassing of chemicals, buy carpets with few or no finishes, such as stain repellents.
"Purchase untreated wool or camel"s hair felt pads rather than synthetic foams, foam rubber, latex, or plastic underlays that contain hazardous chemicals.
"Choose tacks instead of adhesives to install carpet.
"Use non-toxic carpet cleaners.
"Although carpet emissions decrease significantly several months after installation, carpets can still send off chemical fumes for as many as five years. Ask the carpet company to air out the product for at least three
days before delivery. For at least 72 hours after installation, open windows to disperse hazardous fumes and gases.
"Buy carpets made from natural fibers. Organically grown wool, cotton, hemp, jute, ramie or goat hair costs are good options.
You"ve walked on natural flooring if you"ve visited Real Goods catalog"s flagship store in Hopland, California, or Fetzer Winery in Ukiah, California. Among companies that sell such green flooring:
Eco-Friendly Flooring. This woman-owned wholesale supplier and installation contractor specializes in sustainable floor products such as hemp, seagrass and sisal carpets, some backed with natural rubber. 100 S. Baldwin St. , Suite. 110, Madison, WI 53703, (866)250-3273, Greenfloors. Selling recycled commercial and residential eco-carpeting, padding, linoleum and more, officials of this company pride themselves on keeping up on green flooring issues by, among other things, studying more than 30 publications monthly for new products. 3131 Draper Drive, Fairfax, VA 22130, (703)691-1616, www.greenfloors.com.
Natural Carpet Company. This manufacturer, importer and exporter of carpets offers products using such fibers as abaca, raffia, wool, silk, buri, wood, bamboo, seagrass, cotton and rattan. 3015 Nebraska Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90404, (310)447-7965, www.naturalcarpetcompany.com.
Naturlich Natural Home. Wool naturally resists stains and water better than anything man-made, this company maintains, so its wool carpets aren"t treated with formaldehyde. Cork flooring, sustainable hardwood flooring and linoleum are among other offerings. P.O. Box 1677, Sebastopol, CA, 95473, (707)824-0914, www.naturalhomeproducts.com.