There are many factors that can contribute to poor indoor air quality (IAQ) in the workplace. Some of the most commonly recognized chemical contaminants are volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are released slowly into the air from materials in the office space. This week, Forbes published an article about a new study on a category of VOCs called polyfluorinated compounds (PFCs). These substances are known to cause health problems in animals and are suspected of having harmful effects on humans as well. The amount of exposure that might cause damage hasn’t been discovered. What scientists do know is that PFC exposure is cumulative since it takes years to metabolize the compounds and flush them from the body.
The actual study quoted in Forbes and other articles about toxins in the workplace was very small. The air quality in just 31 offices was tested over a period of one week and all were in a single city (Boston). In addition, only one worker from each office had their blood serum tested for the compounds being monitored. This leaves a lot of room for statistical variation. However, there were some initial findings that may lead to further study on a large scale.
1. Some chemical contaminants were found in lower concentrations than others due to various products being pulled from the market over the last couple of decades. There’s definitely a trend toward reducing VOCs, although many still remain to cause concern.
2. There was a correlation between newly renovated offices and higher levels of PFC-related chemicals in the blood serum samples. This isn’t surprising since most off-gassing of VOCs occurs in new building materials and office furniture. Harmful gases are frequently a byproduct that is released from coatings, stain repellents, adhesives, and paints.
What to Do
Forbes doesn’t offer any really helpful advice on how to limit exposure since individual employees have little control over the level of VOCs in the workplace. Instead, it’s up to business owners to ensure that office spaces are constructed and furnished with an eye toward preserving good IAQ. Using materials and products that meet GREENGUARD Certification Standards for Low-Emitting Products is one way to do this. Contacting an experienced LEED consultant to help you select the right office furniture can also be very helpful since IAQ is one major factor taken into consideration for LEED certification.