If at any point you are in a position to remodel or replace furnishings in your building, research the materials that you’ll be replacing. Choose options that have little to no chance of releasing any kind of noxious gas or chemicals and that do not contain problem substances. Fortunately, industry standards are changing due to consumer demand, and there are new laws in place limiting the presence of certain key problem chemicals.
Additionally, an updated or new air system may be in order. Any new air system should efficiently replace the air in your building and include a system for collecting contaminants.
Common problem materials include:
- Carpet and carpet padding. Carpets trap dust and other particulate, and are very difficult to fully clean. Furthermore, they often off-gas flame-retardants and other hazardous chemicals. Some options are better than others, and may emit fewer VOCs.
- Particleboard, pressed wood, and plywood. The resins and glues in these are often filled with formaldehyde. Industry standards are changing, and formaldehyde levels have been reduced in many products and eliminated in a few. Newly introduced regulations should set maximum levels of formaldehyde for composite woods, but older products may need to be removed or sealed. All-wood products will not have formaldehyde in them and will last longer, however, pressed wood products reduce pressure on virgin forests. Medium density fiberboard (MDF), commonly used in furniture, has the highest levels of formaldehyde.
- Textiles and fabrics. This includes upholstery and drapes, and very possibly your wrinkle-resistant shirt. These often have been treated with VOCs to reduce wrinkling and to act as a flame retardant. Formaldehyde is a common problem here as well. The presence of flame retardant substances are almost never listed on fabric content label, so you will need to do some research to find out if the fabrics have been treated.
- Paints, sealants, and finishes. Look for low VOC paints and finishes, and finishes that are water based. Your local green building supply company should have good resources on what products are safest. Regardless of what you use, use these products outdoors whenever possible. Let your space air out thoroughly before moving people back into a newly painted or refinished space.
- Fuel-burning appliances. This may not be an issue in your space, but if you have a gas stove, water heater, or other appliance that could be releasing gases through combustion, ensure that these appliances have local ventilation that vent to the outside of the building.
- Lead and asbestos. Lead paint was banned in the United States in 1978, and asbestos has been banned from several building applications, but both are still present in many structures. Though this may be a costly intervention, remediating asbestos and lead from your building is well worth it given their clear danger to human health.
On the topic of indoor air quality, health, and prevention:
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Indoor Air Quality
OSHA, Indoor Air Quality in Commercial and Institutional Buildings
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality
Jeanie Lerche Davis, Breathe Easy: 5 Ways to Improve Indoor Air Quality, WebMD
American Lung Association, Indoor Air Quality
Sierra Club, Indoor Air Pollution
On cleaners and building materials impact on IAQ:
Building Ecology Research Group, Practical Ways Building Designers Address Indoor Air Quality Issues?
Green Building, Indoor Air Quality
US Green Building Council’s Green Home Guide
Environmental Working Group, Guide to Healthy Cleaning
On specific chemical and allergenic threats:
EPA information on: radon, environmental tobacco smoke, biologicals, formaldehyde, pesticides, asbestos, lead, and phthalates
Minnesota Department of Health guide to formaldehyde