Your workplace may have toxic air

  • Snehal Rebello, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Jun 13, 2015 21:42 IST

The workplace is causing you harm that is more than just stress-related. A new study found an excessive amount of chemical emissions called toxic total volatile organic compounds (TVOCs) in air-conditioned offices. Prolonged exposure to these emissions could lead to health problems, including eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches and damage to the liver, kidney and the central nervous system. Some VOCs can cause cancer.

The National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), Worli, and Rachana Sansad’s Institute of Environmental Architecture (RSIEA), Prabhadevi, came to this conclusion after studying four office spaces in the city.

A five-member team found TVOCs such as benzene, toluene, xylene and formaldehyde emitted from furniture material, paints and furnishings. Major components of indoor air, TVOCs contain carbon that easily evaporates from the products into the air at room temperature.

While India has no permissible standards for TVOCs, the team found that on an hourly basis, carpet tiles emitted the most TVOCs at 3,320 microgram a cubic metre (µg/m3), followed by painted surfaces at 2,430 µg/m3 and modular furniture at 2,410 µg/m3. Gypsum ceilings emitted the lowest TVOCs at 200 µg/m3. Furniture that emits TVOCs from laminates and fabric contributes to 21% of the emissions. The European Union has set the permissible limit of TVOCs at 300ug/m3 with no single compound contributing more than 10% of the total.

Previous studies have found the level of TVOCs indoors to be 10 times more than the outdoors. “TVOC is one of the precursors for ground-level ozone, which is toxic in nature. Since the concentration of TVOCs is so high, indirect sunlight coming into the office will lead to the production of ozone, which may cross the permissible limit of 100ug/m3, leading to respiratory illnesses,” said Gufran Beig, scientist, Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune.

“Indoor air pollution is a rising concern in an office environment because employees spend their time working in closed offices. Most of their daily exposure to many pollutants comes through the intake of indoor air, deteriorating the air quality,” said Satinder Kaur, research scholar, NEERI.

Kaur said, “TVOCs also adhere or get adsorbed to fine particulate matter and persist for a longer period. The persistence of TVOCs can be felt in many workplaces, where ventilation is poor or the HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system is not designed appropriately.”

For the study, air-conditioned offices spread over an area of 4,000 sqft with 100 workstations were selected. Two-year-old modular furniture was used for sampling, and surface areas of office indoor components such as ceiling, flooring, furniture and partitions were measured.

To ensure there is no influence of outdoor contaminants, researchers set up an experimental clean room chamber and sanitised the space to ensure TVOC emissions were below baseline levels. Following this, gypsum tiles, furniture that included workstations, carpet tiles and painted surfaces were introduced. The quantity of materials introduced into the clean room was based on the percentage of surface areas obtained from the survey of the selected four offices. Readings of VOCs after interior material was introduced showed a significant increase in four hours. Data was collected between 11am and 3pm for four days, and the chamber was thoroughly ventilated for 10 to 12 hours before every sampling.

“TVOCs get accumulated in offices and therefore material containing TVOCs must be avoided when setting up infrastructure. In addition, ventilation must be allowed in offices twice a day if it is possible to open doors and windows, centralised air conditioners should meet the required standards or workplaces must introduce high-end air filters that can absorb TVOCs,” said Roshni Udyavar Yehuda, head, RSIEA.

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