Air pollution in the office isn’t something that most business owners or their employees think about. Most people know that outdoor air, especially in populous cities, contains pollutants, but many are surprised to learn that indoor air also contains pollutants as well. While exposure to indoor air pollution may seem harmless, it can negatively affect workers’ health, mood and productivity. To prevent this from happening to your business, follow these tips to improve the air quality in your office.
Is Air Pollution in Your Office Really a Problem?
The short answer is yes. Unless you take steps to minimize airborne pollutants, your office and its workers will suffer from dirty air. And you might be surprised to learn that indoor air is typically more polluted than outdoor air. According to studies conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Science Advisory Board (SAB) – a division of the EPA that focuses on scientific research – indoor air pollution is one of the top five environmental risks to public health.
Although indoor air pollution poses a myriad of problems, some of the most common include:
- Upper respiratory irritation
- Allergy attacks
- Weakened immune system (leaving workers susceptible to infectious illness)
- Trouble concentrating
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness and vertigo
- Increased risk of cancer
Control the Humidity
High humidity is a leading cause of indoor air pollution. Unbeknownst to many people, air is filled with moisture particles. Expressed as a percentage, humidity refers to the amount of water vapor in the air relative to what the air can hold at its current temperature. If your office has a humidity of 50%, for example, the air is half full of water.
To promote clean air in your office, you should try to maintain a humidity level of 40% to 50%. When the humidity creeps to 60% or higher, it encourages mold and mildew to grow. You may discover black mold on your office’s windows and walls. As mold develops on these surfaces, some of the spores will be released into the air where they are inhaled by workers. Use your office’s heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC) system as well as a dehumidifier to control the humidity.
Clean Spilled Liquids
Whether it’s a soda, water bottle, cup of coffee, etc., you should clean spilled liquids in a timely manner. Allowing liquids to sit on your office’s floor contributes to mold and mildew – just like high humidity. Place paper towel dispensers and trash cans throughout your office and encourage workers to clean up spilled liquids. Spilled liquids are bound to happen, but if you clean them up, they won’t contribute to air pollution.
Decorate With Plants
Plants aren’t just decorative; they provide functional benefits for your office, including cleaner air. First, plants absorb carbon dioxide, converting it into oxygen via photosynthesis. Second, plants collect and capture pollutants like dust, bacteria and mold from the air. These effects allow plants to naturally clean indoor air.
In the late 1980s, NASA conducted a study to determine which plants offered the greatest air-purifying benefits. Known as the Clean Air Study, it found that some of the best air-purifying plants are the Dwarf date palm, acreca palm, Boston fern, English ivy, spider plant, devil’s ivy and peace lily.
According to NASA, business owners should include at least one plant for every 100 square feet of office space. If your office is 1,000 square feet, use at least 10 plants in the décor. If it’s only 500 square feet, use five plants. You can place them on desks, windowsills, tables or even the floor. Just remember to choose the right plants, such as those cited in NASA’s Clean Air Study.
Avoid Using Air Fresheners
They may smell nice, but air fresheners can add toxins and harsh chemicals to your office’s air. Surveys show that 19% of people have experienced health problems caused by air fresheners. According to WebMD, air freshener work by masking odors with synthetic fragrances, which often come from chemicals like camphor, ethanol and formaldehyde.
And don’t assume that scented candles are any better. Whether they are made of soy or wax, scented candles contain many of the same chemicals found in air fresheners. To make matters worse, however, these chemicals create new, harsher chemicals when burned. If your office smells funny, focus on improving the ventilation and eliminating the root cause of the odor rather than masking it with an air freshener or scented candle.
Creating clear air in your office begins with vacuuming the floors. It’s not uncommon for a midsize office to have 20 to 30 workers, while larger offices can have more than 50 workers. All this traffic results in dirt, germs and debris being trekked into the office by workers’ shoes. If left unchecked, some of this debris will enter the air and contribute to pollution. You can prevent this from happening by vacuuming your office’s floors regularly. Whether you do it yourself or use a professional commercial cleaning company, vacuum your office daily to reduce airborne pollutants.
Open the Windows
Something as simple as opening the windows can improve the air quality in your office. On its website, the EPA says that opening windows improves air quality by replacing stale indoor air with fresh outdoor air. Most HVAC systems – both in homes and commercial buildings – recycle air rather than bring in fresh air from outside. As a result, airborne pollutants are unable to escape and continue to circulate. Opening windows solves this problem by allowing fresh air to enter your office and stale air to leave.
Of course, not all business owners and office managers have the luxury of opening their windows. In many commercial buildings, office windows are locked shut for safety and security purposes. Assuming you can open your windows, though, you should do so when weather permits to create cleaner air.
Replace HVAC Filter
The filter in your office’s HVAC system plays an important role in keeping the air clean and free of pollutants. Consisting of a fibrous square- or rectangular-shaped material, it removes particulate matter from the air so that it doesn’t recirculate back through your office. Most homes can go for 60 to 90 days without needing to change the air filter. In commercial workspaces like an office, though, you should change the filter at least once a month.
Here are some tips on choosing the right HVAC filter for your office:
- Choose a filter in the same size as your existing filter (measured in length, width and depth).
- Consider a high-efficiency particulate air filter (HEPA) for maximum filtration power. Under federal law, all HEPA filters sold in the United States must remove at least 99.97% of particulate substances from the air.
- Inspect the air filter’s Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) rating. Ranging from one to 20, it reflects the filter’s ability to remove small particulate matter. The higher the rating, the smaller the particles it will filter.
- Check to see what the filter is made of. Most filters are made of either fiberglass or a pleated material.
HEPA filters with a high MERV rating offer the greatest protection of airborne pollutants. It’s important to note, however, that airflow may be restricted with these highly efficient filters. Because they filter more pollutants from the air, HEPA and high-MERV filters slow down the speed at which air passes through them. Choose an air filter for your office that offers strong filtration power while still allowing air to easily flow through it. It’s a good idea to tune up your HVAC system annually.
Don’t Block Vents
When furnishing your office with new desks, chairs and other furniture, you may accidentally block one or more vents. Not only will this lower the performance of your office’s HVAC system, but it also contributes to air pollution. HVAC systems feature two types of vents: supply and return. Supply vents are designed to eject newly cooled or warmed air into your office, whereas return vents draw air from your office into the HVAC system so that it can be recycled. When either of these vents are blocked, less air flows through your office, thereby causing higher levels of airborne pollutants.
Use an Air Purifier
Not to be confused with a humidifier, an air purifier is a device that removes toxins and pollutants from indoor air. It sucks in ambient air, at which point it removes potentially harmful pollutants before ejecting the air back into the surrounding space.
There are different types of air purifiers, the most common of which uses a filter. These filter-based purifiers clean air the same way that an HVAC filter cleans it. Other air purifiers clean air using ultraviolet (UV) light, activated carbon or thermodynamic sterilization. Regardless of which one you choose, place it in the center of your office to achieve the best results.
Choose Low-VOC Furniture
When buying furniture for your office, choose low-VOC pieces. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a major source of indoor air pollution. Released as a gas from a solid or liquid product, VOCs are commonly used in finishes, adhesives and varnishes for office furniture. You can often determine if a piece of furniture has a high concentration of VOCs by smelling it. High-VOC furniture has a strong, chemical odor that’s almost nauseating, whereas low-VOC furniture has little or no odor.
The EPA says that VOC levels are two to five times higher indoors than outdoors. When workers are exposed to VOCs, they may experience adverse health effects like headache, liver damage, nausea, skin allergy, fatigue and throat irritation. Thankfully, there’s low-VOC office furniture available to minimize workers’ health risks.
Keep in mind that office furniture is just one potential source of VOCs. You may also find VOCs in paint, cleaning products, pesticide and disinfectants.
Inspect for Moisture
Moisture in the workplace is a major concern for business owners and office managers. Standing water causes higher humidity level while encouraging mold and mildew to thrive in the process. Unfortunately, water often accumulates in hidden areas like under appliances and around HVAC equipment. To keep your office’s air clean, inspect it for moisture and water.
There shouldn’t be any freestanding water in your office, so fix all leaks and condensation sources. Whether it’s clogged condensation line in your HVAC system or a leaky water supply line, don’t ignore problems such as these. Fix them as soon as possible to prevent mold from developing and minimize airborne pollution in your office.
Clean With Microfiber Cloths
Why should you clean your office with microfiber cloths? Unlike traditional cloths, microfiber cloths are designed with fine, thin strands of fabric that catch more dust and debris. While traditional clothes are made of natural fabrics like cotton or wool, microfiber cloths are made of lab-created synthetic fabrics like polyester or nylon.
Cleaning desks, counters and other surfaces in your office with a microfiber cloth will remove more pollutants than cleaning these same surfaces with a traditional cloth. You can even invest in a microfiber mop if your office has hardwood or laminate floors. These mops contain heads designed with the same synthetic fabrics as handheld microfiber cloths, allowing for superior cleaning power.
Be Conscious of Air Quality With Your Office’s Layout
Finally, you should be conscious of your office’s layout in relation to its air quality. For example, place cubicles or workstations away from photocopiers. Studies have shown that photocopiers release high levels of particulate matter into the air. And while there’s no evidence indicating that photocopiers cause or contribute to cancer, long-term exposure to this common piece of office equipment has been shown to increase oxidative stress in human workers.
Another office design tip is to set up cubicles and workstations near windows and supply vents. Opening the windows will immediately provide nearby workers with fresh air, and turning on the air conditioner or heater will provide workers with cleaner, though not necessarily fresh, air.
Indoor air pollution is a hazard to all workers, but it’s also something that can be avoided with the right planning. Following these tips will help you create a clean, productive working environment in your office with minimal air pollution.
President at Office Chairs Unlimited – I have been in the furniture industry for 20 years, and I’m an expert (just ask me) on all things furniture. I know a thing or two because I’ve seen a thing or two.