Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Poor indoor air quality a potentially explosive health crisis in the Caribbean

By Dr Valma Jessamy

On the outside the sunny Caribbean is known for its hot balmy weather mediated by cool island breeze, creating a literal tropical paradise. On the inside lurks the real culprit -- high humidity and temperatures and the ever present mildew.

Because our building designs, laws, regulations and building codes have not taken into consideration the combination of outdoor and indoor air quality, workers and employers are now forced into an unnecessary standoff. Consequently, the Caribbean is on the verge of a worsening trend of sick building syndrome (SBS) as workers in several islands threaten employers with labour action unless they take serious stock of the poor quality of indoor air in their workplaces.

Valma Jessamy, PhD, is a consulting environmental engineering scientist working with public and private sector organizations in the Caribbean for over fifteen years. She is the CEO of JECO Caribbean Group of Development Companies, which among other services, specializes in air quality testing and remediation. Dr Jessamy is a certified IAQ professional and member of the International Indoor Air Quality Commission.Oil refinery workers in Curacao, government ministry workers in Trinidad and Tobago and Grenada, lawyers and laboratory technicians in St Lucia even teachers in Barbados have all either walked off the job or have threatened labour action because they say the buildings in which they are working is making them sick.

With the exception of Barbados, the Caribbean islands have retained the Factory Act, a relic of the colonial era as the sole regulator of worker safety. Even though Barbados reformed the Factory Act and replaced it with an updated modern version to reflect concern for workers’ occupational health and safety issues, since 2003, the teachers’ union has been warning Barbadian officials of the worsening condition of buildings where teachers work.

As recent news reports have shown, government workers in Trinidad, St Lucia and Grenada have had to resort to labor action even in the facilities occupied by the people who are responsible for making policies that ought to protect employers and workers.

The existing legal standard for determining building quality in the Caribbean, the Caribbean Uniform Building Code (CUBIC), succeeds in its focus on structural designs of buildings, identifies hazards in construction and in the performance of air conditioning mechanical ventilation systems. But CUBIC fails to provide a complete regime for indoor air quality, though it recommends the number of vents and windows in rooms and areas of various sizes. This is not the sole fault of CUBIC but the aggravated failures of local architects and engineers to construct buildings with the occupants foremost in mind and of course the lack of occupational health and safety laws.

Since indoor air quality testing is not required by law in the Caribbean, employers face the double disadvantage of not knowing the status of their facilities and becoming aware of a problem only when their workforce succumb to illnesses. And the bottom lines suffer too because sick workers means loss of productive time and larger payments for health costs and insurance premiums. Even worse, business face the prospect of reputational injury as qualified workers will opt out of employment opportunities with employers regarded as neglectful of their employee's health and safety.

Sick building syndrome or SBS, refers to a range of symptoms from headaches, allergies, dizziness, fatigue and nausea to severe cases of respiratory ailments like asthma and lung infections caused by exposure to poor indoor air. A building is referred to as being sick, when there is evidence of a combination of high temperatures, humidity and high levels of pollutants.

Once upon a time there was the idealized Caribbean style building, with its louvered windows, later replaced by ventilated blocks -- to increase ventilation of the inside and reduce the buildup of pollutants. Today, the changing architecture of both commercial and residential buildings in the Caribbean is reflected in an artificial need to keep inside cool or keep insects out, so that new buildings are constructed with poor natural ventilation and the consequential accumulation of indoor air pollutants.

Indoor air quality (IAQ) is an ignored aspect of environmental health and management. We often think of the outdoor environment as the only space that needs to be managed for healthy living. However, with more time spent indoors, there is growing evidence that the quality of the indoor environment has a significant impact on human health.

Of course IAQ is affected by the quality of the outdoor air too. For example, a building located along a busy roadway can be affected by vehicle exhaust and dust, which, if allowed to become trapped on the inside, presents a serious case of polluted indoor air.

IAQ is also affected by physical, biological and chemical contaminates such as: dust particles, pollen, respiratory wastes of its occupants, breakdown and release of chemicals from building materials and electronic equipment, burning of fuel for cooking, animal dander from pets and pests, bacteria, viruses and fungi.

Building design affects ventilation, which in turn affects indoor temperatures, humidity and concentration of pollutants trapped inside. Good building design allows frequent air exchanges with outdoor air or "breathing" of the indoor space so that stale air and contaminants can be flushed out and replaced with cleaner fresher air.

In many commercial buildings, ventilation is done by mechanical means through the use of an air handling unit (AHU) as part of a heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system. Contrary to popular belief, split air conditioning units (AC) do not provide ventilation of buildings. They function only to cool air and remove some dust particles and reduce humidity in limited cases.

To solve the worsening trend of sick building syndrome quickly we need to perform indoor air quality assessments at least once every year and conform building renovations to standards that are suitable for tropical environments. CUBIC has referenced the North American building design standards when the wiser thing to do is turn to other standards more applicable to the tropical conditions our workers and employers must deal with here at home.

The Caribbean Public Health Agency and its network of government agencies and health institutions recently launched a Caribbean Wellness Day. This initiative must be broadened to include IAQ and occupation health and safety since on average we spend more than 90% of our day indoors. Compared to food and other nutritional intake, air is the largest substance ingested by the human body. An individual can survive for several weeks without [food] and water but only minutes without air.

April 6, 2011