The Forgotten Green Workplace Ingredient — Ventilation

High-tech hospital ventilation system. Image Credit: Tekomat
High-tech hospital ventilation system.
Image Credit: Tecomak

I work at home, so I have the luxury of controlling my work environment. As part of that, my wife has me in the habit of opening the windows enough to keep the place well ventilated. It makes a world of difference. However, many people (such as my wife) have no or little control over their workplace ventilation. This, of course, puts a lot of responsibility on those who do have control over it, because workplace ventilation, indoor air quality, and an overall healthy workplace environment are critical to employee satisfaction and employee performance.

Back in 2010, I actually had the chance to interview Dr. Mark Sneller, an expert on the topic of indoor air quality (IAQ). I posted the interview in three parts here on Planetsave (Part 1 on the topic of the “Best Way To Improve Indoor Air Quality” will get you started if you want to read that full series).

From that first article was something I already knew, that a lot of scented products are horrible for your health: “I would say that care in purchasing products has to rank right up at the top of our indoor air quality concerns. What are these products? Virtually anything with fragrance and perfume, air purifiers, ozone producing machines, and claims for better health…. I will address the specifics of fragrance products in a later articles, but here, suffice it to say that these chemically derived odors have toxic capabilities that we have defined: everything from birth defects to depression. They are frequently neurotoxic. (Here, the use of toxic is not meant as a generalized over-the-fence term. It is an actual measurable term from the scientific standpoint, verifiable and reproducible.)

No joking matter. As Dr. Sneller recommended at that time, the first step is to simply not buy toxic products. However, in a workplace situation, employees may not have control over what their coworkers wear or spray. That’s where ventilation systems (btw, check out the Tecomak website for some top-notch systems) play an important role. The Communications Workers of America (CWA) union writes:

An indoor air pollution problem exists when a limited amount of fresh air is circulated throughout the office (tight building syndrome); air is circulated at too fast a rate within the workplace; toxic substances are present in the office environment; or outside air circulated into the workplace is polluted.

There are several variables that contribute to indoor air pollution. Such factors include the use of chemicals like formaldehyde in carpets and furniture; carbon monoxide given off by cigarette smoke and outside traffic; polychlorinated biphenyls contained in electrical transformers; radiation from building insulation; ozone from copiers; and solvents used in cleaners, glues, copiers; and the ventilation system itself.

It also emphasizes that our often “overly sealed” buildings don’t allow enough air flow. However, sealing a building well is important for the building’s energy efficiency, a critical green need. That is, again, why good ventilation systems are important in such buildings — they allow us to be greener, while not compromising (and, ideally, also improving) our health. Studies on the topic have seemingly confirmed that new ventilation systems improve employee satisfaction and employee performance.

Here’s one final quote from CWA on this matter: “the amount of fresh air and its cleanliness are important factors in determining air quality. An efficient, well-maintained ventilation system will circulate and substitute fresh air for used air. Although ventilation systems are not designed to remove large amounts of air contaminants, the ventilation system may sufficiently reduce the level of air pollution.”

I recommend reading the full CWA article on this topic if you are interested in learning more — it even gets into some good detail on office design/layout. The EPA has also produced a good factsheet on “Ventilation and Air Quality in Offices” that is worth a read. And if you’re eager for even more, check out the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s webpage on the topic and.or the CDC’s. And, lastly, for a bit of fun (and perhaps even use) check out the solar-powered ventilation fan we wrote about a few months ago on sister site CleanTechnica.

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