“Healthy indoor air is recognized as a basic right,” states the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for indoor air quality. “Knowledge of indoor air quality, its health significance and the factors that cause poor quality are key to enabling action by relevant stakeholders—including building owners, developers, users, and occupants—to maintain clean indoor air.”
Indoor air quality is more commonly referred to by its abbreviation, IAQ. In LEED version-4, the relevant category is called Indoor Environmental Quality and abbreviated as EQ. Regardless of the name, key factors affecting IAQ and EQ can involve pesticides and biocides, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, radon, solvents, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), allergens, moulds, asbestos, and other particulate matter. Using low-emitting building products and materials, and acoustic treatments in interior spaces contribute to healthy IAQ and EQ, current green standards, building codes, and regulation.
With poor IAQ, high levels of contaminants, chemicals, carbon dioxide, and other pollutants can lead to bad odours and irritation that cause people to lose concentration. Exposure can result in itchy eyes, nose, throat, and skin; headaches; dizziness; fatigue; shortness of breath; hypersensitivity and allergies; sinus congestion; coughing and sneezing; and nausea. Long-term or excessive exposure is linked to respiratory and heart diseases, and cancer.
IAQ is stated or implied in most Canadian building codes as design and operation criteria. For guidance, building codes and health and safety legislation in Canada usually refer to a version of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) Standard 62.1 Ventilation for Acceptable Indoor Air Quality.
Protecting the most vulnerable
The average person spends approximately 90 per cent of their time indoors, where the concentrations of some pollutants can be two to five times higher than outdoors. People who are often the most susceptible to poor IAQ tend to spend even more time inside, including those with compromised health and chronic illnesses, the elderly, and children.
Children need to breathe in more air than adults and, as a result, are absorbing more chemicals that can be harmful to their growing bodies, development, and ability to learn. Since most children spend most of their time inside schools and daycare facilities, these projects deserve extra attention when designing and specifying for air quality.
IAQ in Canadian school systems “is inadequate and the consequences include significant health effects to the children, teachers, and staff who occupy the school buildings,” according to Management of Indoor Air Quality in Canadian Schools. This 1998 research paper by Karen Beaulieu, a master of environmental design graduate student at the University of Calgary, surveyed 293 Canadian school systems representing every province and territory, and conducted follow-up interviews with selected personnel.
While nearly every Canadian school has made improvements and investments in their buildings’ IAQ during the 25 years since Beaulieu’s research, her paper continues to provide insight and value. Among these, the paper highlighted building products and materials can be important sources of IAQ contaminants. Ceiling tiles are specifically listed among these potential sources.
Addressing the role that all building products and materials play in IAQ, Beaulieu recommended:
“When designing a new building and when undertaking renovations, designers should discuss their indoor air quality concerns with manufacturers and suppliers and select the lowest-emitting materials and processes available.”
She continues by noting a careful selection of materials will minimize the potential for contamination through the processes of:
∞ emission of chemicals from the materials.
∞ release of particles from the materials.
∞ growth of microbial contaminants on materials that sustain moisture.
∞ emission of chemicals from materials that have absorbed the chemicals from surrounding air.
∞ maintenance and refinishing requirements of materials requiring additional chemicals.
Beaulieu’s IAQ recommendations remain consistent with many of those shared in the WHO’s IAQ guidelines, in the 2003 Indoor Air Quality – Tools for Schools Action Kit for Canadian Schools by the Minister of Health, and with current (2021) IAQ information offered on the Canadian Centre of Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) website.
All three sources noted the benefit of selecting low-emitting building products for new and renovation projects. These resources also emphasized concern for managing moisture and preventing the growth of mould and the propagation of other microbial contaminants.