How to Test Your Building's Indoor Air Quality

Learn how to test your commercial building for indoor air quality and potential airborne contaminants.

Organizations worldwide have been suddenly forced to think about indoor air quality or IAQ. With the ongoing COVID pandemic, more and more businesses must look at the amount of fresh air being introduced into indoor spaces to reduce the spread of harmful viruses. Before COVID-19, buildings already needed to test indoor air quality for safety standards and to maintain occupant health. 

Poor air quality can contribute to poor health conditions, sick building syndrome, negatively impact company morale, and reduced productivity. It's essential to know how to test for indoor air quality. This article will walk you through how to do so, the types of contaminants, and ways to remove those contaminants. 

How Do You Test Air Quality In A Building?

There are a few standard ways facility managers (FMs) and engineers can perform IAQ testing in a building, but it depends on which indoor air pollutant is your primary concern. The EPA considers most facilities to have these common pollutants:

  • Biological pollutants.
  • Chemical pollutants.
  • Combustion products. 
Illustration of Indoor Air Quality Testing

Biological Pollutants

Mold Spores, Dust Mites, and Pollen

Biological pollutants include mold spores, dust mites, and pollen. Mold is considered a more biological severe pollutant, but dust mites and pollen can be an asthma trigger and detrimental to individuals with allergies. An increased presence of these biological pollutants can lead to significant short-term and long-term health problems. 

Mold and dust mites like warm, moist areas, so keep humidity down. There are natural ways of curbing these indoor air pollutants, like air purifiers and regular sanitization. UV-C technology and portable air filters with multiple stages of technology are best for removing biological contaminants from commercial and industrial indoor spaces. 

To understand IAQ problems, take air samplings and send them to companies like INDOOR Biotechnologies, Inc. You can do pollen, dust mites, and mold testing by submitting an air or dust sample. The price ranges from $75 for their lab to test one allergen to $345 for testing all 14.  

COVID-19 Particles and Viruses

Viruses, including the flu, MRSA, DNA, RNA, HIV, and the SARS-CoV-2 virus, are common indoor air pollutants. These virus particles are often microscopic, measuring at 0.1 microns in size, latch onto microns as large as 0.3, the size of the most penetrating particle size (MPPS), and get through into indoor spaces. 

With the rise in the COVID-19 pandemic, more businesses globally have been concerned with their indoor air quality. Companies should implement air purifiers to do something about this quickly and stay open. Air purification systems with electrostatic sprayershydroxyl generators, HEPA filters, activated carbon filters, and other MERV 13 rated filters can protect businesses from COVID-19 and other viruses. For long-term solutions, they can also consider HVAC filter upgrades, upgrading their HVAC with inline air purification systems such as the ActivePure® Induct Guardian.

Chemical Pollutants

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are vapors or gases containing carbon and are volatile by nature. Many products found in buildings naturally put off VOCs. You can find them in paints, cleaners, stored fuels, wood preservatives, building materials, furnishings, office equipment, disinfectants, and more. 

VOCs are probably the most common contaminant in office and industrial settings, and long-term exposure can cause nervous system damage liver and kidney damage. Short-term exposure might contribute to respiratory problems, headaches, allergic skin reactions, nausea, and dizziness. 

While increased ventilation and proper disposal of VOC-heavy products will help, activated carbon filters in portable air purifiers like the Hydroxyl Blaster can remove many of the damaging VOCs from your indoor air. You can also test for VOCs with monitor test kits, which cost around $130. This kit involves taking a sample and sending it to the company's American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) accredited lab.

Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is a common carcinogen typically found in manufacturing resins like particleboard products, glues, paints, paper products, personal care products, cosmetics, and medicines. This VOC may cause nose, eye, and throat irritation! 

Increased ventilation can help filter out formaldehyde. A portable air purifier with an activated carbon filter can also remove particulate matter (PM) like formaldehyde from your commercial air. You can also test for it using a basic formaldehyde test kit, although a professional test may be more accurate. 

Lead

Lead is a pervasive element and has historically been used in pipes and paints. Old buildings with lead-based paint on the walls are actually the most significant source of lead exposure. If your building is older with peeling, chipping, chalking, cracking, damp, or otherwise deteriorating lead paint (especially near an open flame), you will need to do something about this quickly. 

Airborne lead can cause respiratory problems and, at high concentrations, lead to coma, convulsions, and death. You can filter your air for lead and other VOCs using a HEPA filter on your HVAC system and an air purifier with HEPA and activated carbon filters, like the Aerus Pure & Clean. No matter what, test for lead regularly. You can do so with an EPA-recognized lead test kit, like the one provided by 3M (3MleadCheck). 

Radon

Radon is a radioactive element present when uranium in the soil breaks down. Radon is like oxygen—it's ubiquitous and everywhere. This radioactive, colorless gas can cause long-term lung damage at high concentrations, leading to lung cancer if exposed over a lifetime. 

Your city or municipality usually provides radon test kits, but you can also buy them online. The National Radon Program Services at Kansas State University has discounted radon test kits that you can buy online at $15 per short-term test kit and $25 per long-term test kit. 

A short-term test of 4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) or greater should be followed up with a second short-term test to test the average. Install a portable air purifier if you're worried about high radon levels in your commercial building. A vent pipe may need to be installed below your building to filter out extremely high radon levels. 

Combustion Products

Environmental Tobacco Smoke

Tobacco smoke (ETS), otherwise known as secondhand smoke, is the smoke that comes from the burning end of cigarettes, pipes, and cigars and is commonly known to cause lung cancer. ETS leads to indoor air pollution and decreases respiratory health. Testing for ETS may be persuasive in creating smoke-free facilities and can be tested with air quality test kits.

Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide is a combustible pollutant that, at high concentrations, can cause unconsciousness and death. The EPA and CPSC say that unvented kerosene, gas space heaters, wood stoves, and gas stoves can cause carbon monoxide. Considering that every building requires a heat source, dangerous levels of carbon monoxide contamination can happen to anyone. A carbon monoxide detector should be installed around each heat source. Facility managers could also test for CO regularly to prevent CO-related side effects, like flu or food poisoning symptoms. 

What Is Indoor Air Quality? What is IAQ?

Indoor Air Quality Testing and Contaminants

Air sampling with an indoor air quality test kit is one way to identify potential indoor air quality issues. Although, this should never be conducted in isolation. Indoor air quality tests on their own won't solve your indoor air quality problem on their own. Sampling for contaminant concentration levels can give some data around poor indoor air quality and indoor environment quality as long as a comprehensive understanding of the building operations is provided. Other factors can influence air quality, such as:

  • The occupants 
  • The HVAC system 
  • Potential pollutant pathways
  • Contaminant sources

Therefore, besides conducting indoor air quality tests, FMs should audit the building for air quality, document the building history, known complaints, HVAC inefficiencies, and perform a visual inspection. A fundamental investigation will collect data on building temperature, relative humidity level, CO2, and air movement to provide a snapshot of building conditions. 

During the investigation, FMs should form a hypothesis around indoor air quality. Through information gathering, FMs will use this information to better support any indoor air quality readings they obtained during sampling. 

Importance of Indoor Air Quality Testing

Our commercial indoor air settings may be present with loads of contaminants, including chemical, biological, and airborne gas contaminants. The radioactive gas radon, for example, is present just about everywhere as it is created naturally when uranium in soil and rock breaks down. Over time, this odorless, tasteless gas can cause significant health problems like lung cancer, but it can only do so if present in concentrated amounts. 

Unfortunately, materials in buildings can contribute to poor air quality. The adhesives, carpeting, upholstery, manufactured wood products, copy machines in our offices, pesticides on plants, and cleaning agents used in buildings can all put off VOCs, which can cause difficulty breathing, nausea, and central nervous system damage. Some can even cause cancer!

The unfortunate reality is that the air we breathe can, at any moment, be laden with harmful contaminants, and we wouldn't even know it. Many of these contaminants are odorless, tasteless, and colorless. Viruses like the one that causes COVID-19 can also be present on surfaces. 

Exposure to these pollutants in the workplace can contribute to poor health, worsening allergy symptoms, headaches, illnesses like building-related illnesses and sick building syndrome, and the possibility of contracting the COVID-19 virus. With any of these contaminants present in an office building or factory setting, your business could experience increased worker health claims, poor productivity, missed work due to illnesses, and building shut-downs. 

Clean Office HVAC IAQ

What To Do If You Have Indicators of Poor Indoor Air Quality

Improving air quality can be simple and relatively affordable. Portable air cleaners with multiple layers of filtration can remove all indoor air pollutants and provide a cleaner working environment. Long-term solutions might involve upgrading your HVAC system and ducts. Regular sanitization, cleaning, and maintenance can also improve your building's air quality. 

We also recommend a UVD robot for safer sanitization. The UVD robot uses UV-C technology to clean the air and surfaces in a building. It can be programmed to go into contaminated areas remotely and autonomously, leaving the space safer for the occupants at every cleaning. Consider increasing ventilation to improve your building's air changes per hour. You can also test for airflow in your HVAC ducts using a handheld anemometer or wind meter. Also, consider an indoor air quality monitor in trouble spots. 

Harmful chemical and biological pollutants can spread and make matters worse. Commercial indoor air test kits will help you identify potential problems sources and areas. When in doubt, try to isolate the indoor air contaminant and contact a professional to handle the testing, remediation, and removal. 

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