INDOOR ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY
Chemicals and Odors
Chemicals and related odors can be sources of IEQ problems in buildings. Odors are organic or inorganic compounds and can be both pleasant and unpleasant. Some odors can be health hazards and some are not. While most chemical contaminants originate from within the building, chemicals can be drawn into a building from the outdoors as well.
Reducing exposure to chemicals in the workplace is a preventative action that can lead to improved outcomes for both worker health and to the environment.
There are a variety of chemical contaminants found in a variety of sources. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are common chemical contaminants found in office and home environments and are a source of odors. VOCs are organic (containing carbon) chemicals that can easily evaporate into the air. Many products found in the office environment may have the potential to release VOCs. Examples include:
- Caulks, sealants, and coatings
- Paints, varnishes and/or stains
- Wall coverings
- Cleaning agents
- Fuels and combustion products
- Vinyl flooring
- Fabric materials & furnishings
- Air fresheners and other scented products
- Personal products of employees like perfume, shampoos, etc.
If these and other chemical contaminant sources are not controlled, indoor environmental quality problems can arise, even if the building’s ventilation system is properly designed and well maintained. Some examples of building related chemicals, odors, and their sources are listed below:
Contaminated outdoor air
- General air pollutants (oxides of sulfur and nitrogen, ozone, others)
- General vehicle exhaust (carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen)
- Exhaust from gasoline and/or diesel powered vehicles on nearby roads or in parking lots, or garages (carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen)
- Odors from dumpsters
- Exhaust from the neighboring buildings (VOCs and odors)
- Unsanitary debris near the building’s outdoor air intake (various odors)
- Radon (odorless and not visible)
- Leakage from underground fuel tanks (gasoline or solvent odors)
- Contaminants from previous uses of the site (e.g., methane)
- Bioaerosols from water damage, microbial VOCs (VOCs from fungi)
- Emissions from office equipment (VOCs, ozone)
- Emissions from stored supplies (solvents, toners, ammonia, chlorine)
- Emissions from building carpet, furnishings, and other building components (VOCs including formaldehyde from glues, fabric treatments, stains and varnishes)
- Emissions from special use areas within the building such as laboratories, print shops, art rooms, smoking lounges, beauty salons, food preparation areas, and others (various chemicals and related odors)
- Emissions from indoor construction activities (VOCs from use of paint, caulk, adhesives, and other products)
- Elevator motors and other building mechanical systems (solvents and other chemicals)
- Plumbing problems (sewer odors, improper bathroom ventilation)
- Emissions from housekeeping / cleaning activities (ammonia, chlorine, and other cleaning agents such as detergent, dust residual from carpet shampoo, and disinfectants)
- Use of deodorizers and fragrances
- Emissions from pesticide use inside the building
- Accidental events such as spills inside the building
- Emissions from stored trash inside the building
- Fire damage inside the building (soot, polychlorinated biphenyls from electrical equipment, odors)
- Loading docks (vehicle exhausts, chemical spills)
- Emissions from pesticide use outside the building
- Emissions from outdoor construction activities (VOCs from roofing chemicals, and other products)
- Accidental events such as spills outside the building
- Fire damage outside the building
Emissions from building occupantsPotentially hazardous
- Cooking odors
- Cosmetic odors
- Increased levels of carbon dioxide
- Body odor
While some chemicals found in the workplace may have little effect on workers’ health, others may cause health problems. The presence of odor can cause people to suspect exposures to be harmful to their health. However, with few exceptions, chemical concentrations observed in the office work environment generally fall well below the occupational standards or recommended exposure limits used for industrial settings. Additionally, the presence of odors in a building does not always mean that there is an overexposure to chemicals by these existing occupational exposure standards. Some chemicals have very low odor thresholds, which means you can smell them at very low levels.
The degree to which a chemical exposure can affect health depends on:
- how much of the chemical is present in the building / building air
- how often a person comes into contact with the chemical
- how harmful the chemical is to human health
- how sensitive a person is to the chemical
Common symptoms reported by occupants in the building environment include:
- Itchy, watery, or burning eyes
- Skin irritations or rashes
- Nose and throat irritation
While chemical concentrations are typically observed at low levels, severe symptoms are possible under extreme conditions. Severe symptoms include kidney and liver damage, and damage to the central nervous system.
When workers suspect their health problems are caused by chemicals in their work areas, workers should:
- Report their concerns immediately to supervisors or those persons responsible for building safety and health or maintenance.
- If necessary, see their doctor or health care provider.
- Avoid the use of air fresheners and room deodorizers. These can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation.
- Properly store all foods and dispose of trash promptly to prevent odors.
To prevent health problems associated with chemical exposures in the workplace, owners and managers should:
- Respond to building-related health concerns of workers.
It is important that clear procedures for recording and responding to IEQ complaints be established to ensure an adequate and timely response. These include:
- Log all complaints or problem reports.
- Collect information about each complaint.
- Ensure confidentiality.
- Determine a plan for response.
- Identify appropriate resources for response.
- Apply remedial action.
- Provide frequent feedback to building occupants regarding the complaint and response actions.
- Follow-up to ensure that remedial action has been effective.
- Repair areas of water incursion (e.g., leaking pipes).
- Schedule building renovation work, such as interior painting and installation of new carpets or wall coverings, after work hours/when the building is unoccupied.
Open windows or increase ventilation to dilute chemical odors.
- Choose “low VOC” or “zero VOC” emitting products when choosing new or replacement carpets, flooring, wall coverings, office furniture, and paints.
- Choose low emitting office supplies and cleaners.
- Ask your suppliers for product information on chemical emissions and potential health hazards.
- Apply pesticides only when the building is unoccupied. Follow the integrated pest management (IPM) system to prevent risks of exposure.
The Environmental Protection Agency has more information on the use of non-chemical methods of pest control such as baits or traps whenever possible.
- Provide proper ventilation and maintain heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems.
- Properly store cleaning and maintenance chemicals with containers closed and tightly sealed.
Do not store chemical products in equipment rooms where they could contaminate the HVAC system.
- Do not block air distribution with office equipment or furniture.
- Ensure that the manufacturer’s instructions for the use of all cleaning products are followed.
Dilute products to the recommended strength before using.
- Do not allow workers to mix different cleaning products.
Some cleaners when combined give off poisonous fumes.
- Ensure that ALL product label precautions are followed.
You can learn more about potentially hazardous housekeeping or maintenance products by requesting a copy of the material safety data sheet (MSDS). The MSDS contains complete information about a product, including all safety precautions. Request a copy by calling the manufacturer’s number on the product.
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Indoor Air Quality Scientific Findings Resource Bank - Indoor Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and Health
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
An Introduction to Indoor Air Quality
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
- National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
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- Contact CDC-INFO