Keeping Your Building Healthy Caring for Your Indoor Environment

Board members and building managers have a lot on their plates—maintenance issues, resident complaints, construction projects, and the hundred little tasks that make up the administration and upkeep of a multifamily residential building. With all that going on, it's easy to forget or overlook issues that may not necessarily be visible to the naked eye. Something like indoor air quality often doesn't register as a priority until it becomes a problem, and even then it can be tough to pinpoint the root of the issue.

“People don’t consider air quality a priority because there are a lot of other things that you need to worry about in the building,” says Maria Vizzi, president of Indoor Environmental Solutions, Inc. in the Bronx. “Air quality tends not to get the priority that it deserves. That can lead to trouble.”

Sick Buildings?

About two decades ago, the term “sick building syndrome” seemed to pop up regularly in news headlines and broadcasts in the city, as fears about poor air quality in New York’s buildings surfaced from every direction. The term was used to describe a situation in which a building's ventilation system was compromised, leading to health or comfort issues for its occupants. With everything else New Yorkers have to deal with on a daily basis that impacts their health and comfort, the relative “health” of their building is not a topic likely on the mind of many these days.

“'Sick building syndrome' is an old term,” says Gil Cormier, principal consultant for Occupational Risk Control Services, Inc., an indoor air quality investigation service in New Britain, Connecticut. “No one really uses it anymore, especially when you are talking about residential buildings. Now, what you hear is the term ‘Building Related Illness,’ which is something that we can go in and identify what the problem is.”

With a building-related illness, the symptoms are more tied to the building itself, he continues—general assessments are made to discover what the causes are for any symptoms people are experiencing. “Our focus is on what is the source and is it a chemical or biological contaminate,” Cormier says. “If it’s something that is a one-time thing, we are not as concerned, if we can find out what it is and it’s not repeated.”


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  • One indoor air contaminant not mentioned in this article is secondhand smoke, which will infiltrate an entire building no matter how good the HVAC system. Removing the odor of secondhand smoke doesn't mean it's gone; fine particles drift, accumulate on surfaces and continue to be hazardous to human health. Buildings that tout "green" features and/or LEED certification should assure that once occupied, have a no-smoking policy in place. Such policies are becoming the norm in MUH, including condos.
  • Theresa is correct. Secondhand smoke is a risk factor for heart disease, cancer, asthma, SIDS and many other conditions too numerous to mention. "Sick Building Syndorme" was a term created by the tobacco industry to distract people from the issue of tobacco smoke. It is simple and cost efective to create policies restricting where smoking is or is not allowed to protect people's right to breathe (right to life itself). Such olicies are popular and reduce maintenace costs and fire risks.
  • The author notes that "If people are complaining about excessive coughing, wheezing, throat and eye irritations, skin irritation, nausea, headaches and fatigue or upper respiratory conditions, this could be a sign that the air quality in their home is not good. All of these symptoms can be the result of poorly ventilated areas, strong odor throughout the building, mold/bacterial spores and viruses." He should have noted that one of the most likely causes of most of these symptoms is uninvited drifting secondhand smoke. No-smoking indoor policies often go a long way to eliminate such symptoms and support the health of all residents.