How do indoor air quality standards keep us safe?

Whether at work or at home, indoor air quality is something everyone deserves.
Whether at work or at home, indoor air quality is something everyone deserves.
Geir Pettersen/Digital Vision/Getty Images

You may take the air you're breathing for granted, but being able to fill your lungs with safe, clean air is vital to your good health. To promote air safety and protect indoor air quality, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established some indoor air quality guidelines you should know about. Americans spend up to 90 percent of their time indoors, and harmful indoor air is one of the top five environmental risk factors people face. Following EPA recommendations is an important step you can take to keep your home and even your work environment safer.

The EPA isn't alone in helping to promote clean indoor air. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA); many agencies on the state level; and independent organizations like the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the American Society of Heating Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) and others also have indoor air quality standards, guidelines and recommendations about how to keep indoor air safer.

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There are a number of things to consider when recognizing potential threats to the air inside our homes and businesses. From volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in paint and carpet to radon gas escaping from underground, some threats can be dealt with by regulating the manufacture of products, like removing asbestos from wide circulation, while overseeing safe levels for other potential indoor air pollutants is left to the homeowner or business owner.

What Are Indoor Air Quality Standards?

Keep the elements outside, and clean air inside.
Keep the elements outside, and clean air inside.
Brock Hanson/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Indoor air quality standards establish acceptable thresholds for indoor pollutants, like cigarette smoke. Where the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the EPA and other federal government agencies may help by making sure our products are safe to use indoors and our manufacturing and energy plants are controlling emissions, regulation of indoor air standards often falls to the states. The U.S. Department of Labor's OSHA Act mandates safe indoor air quality in the workplace as part of Section 5(a)(1), but it's up to the states to comply by establishing their own standards and policies. This is commonly known as OSHA's General Duty Clause. It obligates employers to:

". . . furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees;" [source: OSHA].

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You can visit the plan details for the 24 participating states by visiting the State Occupational Safety and Health Plans page of the Occupational Safety & Health Administration's website.

Other state laws may also be in place to control indoor air quality. Minnesota's Clean Indoor Air Act restricts smoking in businesses and public buildings, for instance, as part of an ongoing campaign to protect the public's welfare. Check with your state offices for more information on how the laws in your area may help promote cleaner indoor air [source: MDH].

Beyond the controls established by these agencies, there are indoor air safety concerns, air quality standards, and indoor air safety recommendations you should know about to protect your family. Efforts to make homes more energy efficient have led to better insulated buildings, but all that trapped air can cause a buildup of dangerous toxins. On the next, page let's take a look at some of the worst offenders.

Indoor Air Quality Standards and Health

The air inside your home or office may look clear and smell fine but still be making you sick. There are lots of ways dangerous substances can affect air safety, like formaldehyde gas that can leach out of pressed wood products, or volatile organic chemicals (VOC's) that can be released from new carpet or drying paint. There are also silent killers, like gas leaks from stoves, or radon gas, a radioactive gas that can enter your home from the soil under your home's foundation.

You may never encounter these hazards, but if they are present, and in concentrations that can hurt you, how would you know? A sore throat and watery eyes may be a sign of unhealthy air, but it might just mean that it's allergy season instead. The EPA has a valuable publication entitled The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Qualitythat can help you identify the most likely suspects. It also covers other indoor air related topics like environmental cigarette smoke, biological contaminants and the best ways to weatherize your home.

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There aren't established indoor air quality standards for all of the chemicals and particulates that can cause problems with indoor air safety, but you can get information at the EPA's site that will give you a head start in developing strategies for keeping your home safer, like creating good ventilation, identifying mold problems and understanding the merits of installing an air filtration system. Armed with the right information, you can diagnose problems with the air quality in your home and know your rights when assessing air quality issues in your workplace.

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