Safer Chemicals > Indoor Health Issues

Overview: Indoor Air Pollutants

Certain products and equipment can release into the air harmful chemicals including volatile organic compounds that can have an adverse impact on the health of people in your facility. Indoor air quality is sometimes much worse than outdoor air quality and indoor pollutants have many different sources, including paints, printer cartridges, adhesives, HVAC systems, portable generators, chairs and carpets, and other types of office equipment.

The sources of indoor air pollutants are diverse, and so are the solutions. Consider starting with the following suggestions, and consult the EPA’s Building Air Quality Guide for Facility Managers for more information about the reduction of indoor pollution.

  • Monitor for common indoor air pollutants such as radon and carbon monoxide
  • Centralizing printing and copying can reduce toner use and save money
  • Purchase products with low emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
  • Purchase less toxic cleaning and maintenance products
  • Limit use of indoor pesticides and investigate less toxic pest control methods

Health Benefits

The health effects of air pollutants vary depending on the particular pollutant. Elevated levels of SO2, NOX, VOCs, and particulate matter can cause or aggravate asthma and other serious respiratory symptoms, especially in children. Regular exposure to other pollutants, such as lead, benzene, radon, carbon monoxide, or pesticides, can also have serious effects on neurological, reproductive, and immune systems, and can even cause cancer. By monitoring for common indoor air pollutants such as CO and radon, your organization can help protect the health of employees, players, and fans.

Additional Resources on Indoor Air Pollutants

EPA – Building Air Quality Guide for Facility Managers
EPA – Building Air Quality Action Plan
OSHA – Indoor Air Quality
American Lung Association – Indoor Air Quality

Low-VOC Products

One of the important families of chemicals to consider when attempting to improve indoor air quality is volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Many of these chemicals are harmful to human health, and they are emitted by many common products.

Review the list of potentially harmful product categories below and consider sending a letter to your organization’s suppliers asking about the VOC emissions of the products you are currently using.

What are low-VOC products?

Many commonly used products, such as paints and adhesives, emit a variety of harmful chemicals into the air for months after they have been applied. These chemicals, collectively termed Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), can have a negative impact on indoor air quality and public health. While VOCs were once necessary for good performance in many products, most companies now produce cost-effective low-VOC replacements.

Products that might emit VOCs include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Paints
  • Paint thinner
  • Solvents
  • Wood preservatives
  • Finishes
  • Aerosol sprays
  • Cleaners and disinfectants
  • Air fresheners
  • Stored fuels
  • Dry-cleaned clothing
  • Carpets
  • Caulks and sealants
  • Adhesives
  • Office furniture

Product specifications

“Low” concentrations of VOCs will vary according to the product type. For interior paints and stains, for example, low VOC-emitting products are those with VOC concentrations below 50 g/L. The best way to ensure that the products your organization purchases are low-emission is to consult with your suppliers. Consider using the guidelines in the following sample letter to obtain information on the VOC emissions of the products your organization buys.

Vendors

Where possible, purchase products that have been certified by Green Seal. The EPA’s Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Database and the Oikos Green Product Database are also excellent sources for product specifications, contract language, and lists of preferable products.

Sample contract language:

Sample letter to current suppliers

Dear _______,

[Our Organization] has initiated an effort to improve our environmental performance in all aspects of our operations. We would like to meet with you to discuss these objectives in more detail. We would also like to discuss ways to cost-effectively switch to less harmful products within the next few years.

We would like to reduce as much as possible the harmful effects associated with our operations, and we would like to speak with you about low-VOC alternatives to the products that we are currently using.

Please call me at your earliest convenience so that we can organize a meeting to pursue this discussion.

Environmental Benefits

Reducing the VOCs emitted by the products your organization uses can have a number of positive effects on both public health and the environment. Tests have shown that indoor concentrations of VOCs can be 2 to 5 times higher than outdoor concentrations. Immediately after the application of a high-VOC product, indoor levels can be over 1,000 times higher than outdoor levels. High concentrations of VOCs are known to cause a number of health problems, including eye and throat irritation, headaches, and damage to liver and nervous systems. In addition, some VOCs are thought to cause cancer. By purchasing and using low-emissions products, your organization reduces health risks to employees, players, and fans.

In addition to the known health effects, VOCs are a principal contributor to ground-level ozone, which in turn is a principal component of urban smog. And when VOCs are deposited on outdoor impervious surfaces or in landfills, they can find their way into the water supply through urban runoff and leaching. Reducing the VOC content of your organization’s purchases helps to reduce all of these negative impacts.

Additional Resources on VOCs

Environmental Protection Agency VOC page
Minnesota Department of Health
Green Seal Environmental Standards
EPA – Building Air Quality Guide for Facility Managers
EPA – Building Air Quality Action Plan
OSHA – Indoor Air Quality
American Lung Association – Indoor Air Quality
EPA – Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines: Suppliers Database
Environmental Benefits and Cost Savings Calculator for Purchasers

Ozone Friendly Products

Some products contain substances that break down the protective ozone layer that shields our planet from harmful ultraviolet rays. While these products are being phased out in many countries, you should check to make sure that the products you are using are not damaging the ozone layer.

Consider consulting your suppliers about the ozone depleting potential of the products they provide. The product specifications listed below should serve as a useful guide on how to avoid these chemicals.

Product specifications

Many products contain chemicals that can destroy the protective layer of ozone that surrounds our planet. You should try to avoid products with the following kinds of chemicals:

  • Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)
  • Halons
  • Carbon tetrachloride
  • Methyl chloroform
  • Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs)
  • Methyl bromide

Vendors

Green Seal’s preferable product list contains several less harmful options for a range of product categories. You may also want to consult EPA’s Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Database, which contains product specifications and contract language for a wide variety of additional products. The Oikos Green Product Database is another resource.

Sample letter to current suppliers

Dear _______,

[Our Organization] has initiated an effort to improve our environmental performance in all aspects of our operations. We would like to meet with you to discuss these objectives in more detail. We would also like to discuss ways to cost-effectively switch to products within the next few years that do not contribute to the depletion the ozone layer.

We would like to reduce as much as possible the harmful effects associated with our operations, and we would like to speak with you to ensure that the products we are purchasing do not contribute to this problem.

Please call me at your earliest convenience so that we can organize a meeting to pursue this discussion.

Environmental Benefits

Beneficial atmospheric ozone – as opposed to harmful ground-level ozone – filters out ultraviolet radiation from the sun that can cause cancer. Many products, such as refrigerants and aerosols, were once made with compounds that destroyed ozone when they were released into the atmosphere. In 1985, scientists discovered that concentrations of ozone in the atmosphere were falling rapidly, especially near the poles. This drop has since been attributed to ozone depleting substances such as CFCs and HCFCs. Although the Montreal Protocol treaty has greatly reduced the use of CFCs, some products in some countries are still made with these harmful chemicals.

Additional Resources on Ozone Depletion

EPA ozone depletion home
Class I ozone depleting substances
Class II ozone depleting substances
NOAA – Ozone home
NASA’s Ozone Hole Watch
EPA – Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines: Suppliers Database
Environmental Benefits and Cost Savings Calculator for Purchasers
Green Seal Less-Toxic Products