Building owners fail to
take the air quality problems stemming from renovations seriously enough,
says Masters student Lan Chi Nguyen Thi.
Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj
by Sylvain Comeau
Next time construction workers start tearing down walls in that empty
office across the hall, you might want to open a window, or even take
a week off. Renovation work may well be the culprit in many cases of sick
Lan Chi Nguyen Thi just completed her Masters thesis in Building
Engineering, in which she conducted a study on contaminants released by
renovations. She found that high levels of chemical emissions and organic
contaminants like mold spores, were released by metal welding, the removal
of old carpets and ceiling tiles, and other commonplace renovation activities.
However, Nguyen Thi says, building owners fail to take the air quality
problems stemming from renovations seriously enough.
The impact on indoor air quality is not well controlled. Problems
come up because people are not moved out of buildings during renovations;
they may be moved to another office on the same floor, or at best, to
another floor. Thats not enough to prevent a drop in air quality,
she said in an interview.
For most, the issue is comfort level, although some people are more sensitive
Even after a renovation, the level of exposure in a typical office
building wont make you drop to the floor and choke, but it can be
uncomfortable and unpleasant over the long term if you work there every
day, with symptoms like headaches and respiratory irritation. And there
is also a segment of the population who get very sick, because they suffer
from allergies and chemical sensitivities, Nguyen Thi said.
Renovations are a major contributor to indoor air quality problems, because
we have so many old buildings now, said Gemma Kerr, who is co-thesis
supervisor along with Building Engineering Professor Fariborz Haghighat.
We are not actually putting up that many new buildings. Mostly we
just renovate old buildings, so that a new type of activity can take place
there, or a new tenant can move in.
There is almost continuous renovation work going on, so there are
lots of opportunities for problems to arise.
Renovations can essentially tear away the barriers that had previously
sealed in assorted contaminants, unleashing them into the air. Kerr provides
some unpleasant examples.
Fumes from glue may get into the ventilation system when workers
are painting or caulking or mold spores can get out into other parts of
the building and start new mold colonies when water-damaged drywalls are
Nguyen Thi and Kerr say they will pursue this research, assuming a sponsor
emerges, as partners in their Ottawa-based consulting company, InAIR Environmental
Ltd. They hope that this kind of research will eventually lead to new
government regulations protecting office workers; current regulations
only protect the construction workers doing the renovation, and no regulations
at all cover the problem of mold.
Thats because we dont really know how mold affects people,
Kerr said. We do know that a healthy person may be able to withstand
certain levels of exposure to mold, while someone who is more vulnerable
may get very ill.
Mold has been much in the news lately, following the death of a patient
at the Royal Victoria Hospital after exposure to mold spores in an operating
In a related study, Nguyen Thi and Kerr suggest some protocols for landlords
who want to keep their tenants happy and healthy. Ultimately, they would
like to produce a simple document with clear guidelines that building
owners can follow, to fill the void until new government regulations are
put in place.
Once you know what kinds of contaminants are generated by each activity,
then you can come up with guidelines on what kinds of barriers should
be used, Nguyen Thi said. My goal is not to produce numbers
and figures, because building owners dont care about that. They
just want to know: How do I make sure that occupants in the building are
not affected by the renovation? How do I keep problems from spreading?
We examine the effectiveness of procedures to protect office workers,
Kerr added. It can be very simple, depending on the extent of the
renovation being done, and other factors. It may require fans blowing
air out the window, or plastic sheeting, or simply closing the door. Small
steps like that could make a big difference.
The study was sponsored by the American Society for Heating, Refrigerating
and Air Conditioning Engineers.