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Could the office be making you sick?

Everyday indoor environments could be linked to allergies and respiratory problems. Image: Shutterstock
Everyday indoor environments could be linked to allergies and respiratory problems. Image: Shutterstock

Over the last few decades buildings have become cleaner, leaner and increasingly air-tight, spurred on by a drive for energy efficiency. Now, however, scientists are showing that poor ventilation and indoor pollutants are not only linked to discomfort and decreased productivity, but also to allergies and respiratory disorders.

According to Dr Krystallia Kalimeri from the EU-funded OFFICAIR project, poor conditions in the office could lead to symptoms such as headaches, throat irritations, dry eyes and skin conditions. ‘We do not yet understand the full toxicity of all the compounds present in our work environment,’ she said.

In order to help assess the extent of office pollution, researchers on OFFICAIR conducted a study of 167 office buildings across Europe. They took measurements and built computer models to investigate the concentration of indoor pollutants that build up around employees, which can now be used by scientists for further research on indoor air quality. They also studied how dust and particles, which accumulate inside buildings, can lodge themselves in our lungs.

The project, which finished in October 2013, also tracked the origin of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds which can be emitted from building materials and office equipment, such as furniture or computers. These findings and models can now be used by other researchers to further study how indoor air quality affects health.

Offices buildings are not the only potential site of indoor pollutants. The European HITEA project tracked the causes of allergies and respiratory diseases to the homes and schools of children who suffer from these conditions. ‘One key exposure that we investigated was indoor dampness,’ said Dr Martin Täubel of the Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare.

Researchers discovered that in schools affected by dampness and mould, students were more prone to adverse respiratory effects such as night-time coughing and wheezing. ‘Such conditions may lead to ill health. We are particularly worried about asthma and allergies,’ said Dr Täubel. ‘We know that indoor dampness fosters microbial growth. What we are still trying to unravel is how these microbes affect our health.’

Environmental microbiome

According to Dr Täubel, each school contains a unique microbiome – a mix of microorganisms, which depends on factors as diverse as ventilation systems, outdoor environments and the density of students per classroom. Dampness is just one ingredient – albeit an important one. ‘You can call this "exposome research" or "synergism in exposures". Whatever the name, HITEA has taught us that if we want to answer complex ... questions, we have to look at exposures more broadly.’

In order to build up a more comprehensive picture of indoor exposures, Dr Jürgen Frick at the University of Stuttgart and his collaborators in the EU-funded CETIEB project have developed low-cost monitoring systems to follow a series of indoor environmental parameters such as heat and air quality simultaneously.

‘We do not yet understand the full toxicity of all the compounds present in our work environment.’

Dr Krystallia Kalimeri, University of Western Macedonia, Greece

‘We have developed sensors that scan walls to chart out the thermal distribution in the room. Others detect VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) or CO2 levels, or dissect the colour of incident light,’ said Dr Frick. The measurements can then be centralised and processed by CETIEB algorithms to optimise heating and ventilation systems within the building.

The project has also developed optics to guide natural light indoors through a system of fibres or pipes, and an air-cleaning biofilter made of plants. ‘Our objective is to make these solutions as economical as possible so as to retrofit existing buildings,’ said Dr Frick. The cost of the monitoring systems starts from as little as a few hundred Euros.

One of the technologies that was explored by CETIEB and has now been taken up by ECO-SEE, another EU-funded project, are photocatalytic surfaces of titanium dioxide. Professor Pete Walker, who heads the Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering at the University of Bath and coordinates ECO-SEE, explained that these nano-structured coatings are designed to remove pollutants from the air.

‘We are also developing a range of ecological materials that could make future buildings energy efficient without compromising their air quality,’ he said. Some of these are biological, such as clay-based plasters, timber structures and natural fibre insulation materials based on wool and hemp.

‘These materials were used to build houses prior to the 19th century but went out of fashion because of taste or cost,’ said Professor Walker. ‘They are making a comeback now because they offer low carbon solutions without compromising the health of building users.’

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