Common Pollutants

Carbon dioxide

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a relatively easy to measure surrogate for indoor pollutants emitted by humans, and correlates with human metabolic activity. Carbon dioxide at levels that are unusually high indoors may cause occupants to grow drowsy, to get headaches, or to function at lower activity levels. Outdoor CO2 levels are usually 350–450 ppm whereas the maximum indoor CO2 level considered acceptable is 1000 ppm. Humans are the main indoor source of carbon dioxide in most buildings. Indoor CO2 levels are an indicator of the adequacy of outdoor air ventilation relative to indoor occupant density and metabolic activity.

To eliminate most complaints, the total indoor CO2 level should be reduced to a difference of less than 600 ppm above outdoor levels. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) considers that indoor air concentrations of carbon dioxide that exceed 1,000 ppm are a marker suggesting inadequate ventilation. The UK standards for schools say that carbon dioxide in all teaching and learning spaces, when measured at seated head height and averaged over the whole day should not exceed 1,500 ppm. The whole day refers to normal school hours (i.e. 9:00am to 3:30pm) and includes unoccupied periods such as lunch breaks. In Hong Kong, the EPD established indoor air quality objectives for office buildings and public places in which a carbon dioxide level below 1,000 ppm is considered to be good. European standards limit carbon dioxide to 3,500 ppm. OSHA limits carbon dioxide concentration in the workplace to 5,000 ppm for prolonged periods, and 35,000 ppm for 15 minutes. These higher limits are concerned with avoiding loss of consciousness (fainting), and do not address impaired cognitive performance and energy, which begin to occur at lower concentrations of carbon dioxide. Given the well established roles of oxygen sensing pathways in cancer and the acidosis independent role of carbon dioxide in modulating immune and inflammation linking pathways, it has been suggested that the effects of long-term indoor inspired elevated carbon dioxide levels on the modulation of carcinogenesis be investigated.

Carbon dioxide concentrations increase as a result of human occupancy, but lag in time behind cumulative occupancy and intake of fresh air. The lower the air exchange rate, the slower the buildup of carbon dioxide to quasi “steady state” concentrations on which the NIOSH and UK guidance are based. Therefore, measurements of carbon dioxide for purposes of assessing the adequacy of ventilation need to be made after an extended period of steady occupancy and ventilation – in schools at least 2 hours, and in offices at least 3 hours – for concentrations to be a reasonable indicator of ventilation adequacy. Portable instruments used to measure carbon dioxide should be calibrated frequently, and outdoor measurements used for calculations should be made close in time to indoor measurements. Corrections for temperature effects on measurements made outdoors may also be necessary.

CO2 levels in an enclosed office room can increase to over 1,000 ppm within 45 minutes.

Carbon dioxide concentrations in closed or confined rooms can increase to 1,000 ppm within 45 minutes of enclosure. For example, in a 3.5-by-4-metre (11 ft × 13 ft) sized office, atmospheric carbon dioxide increased from 500 ppm to over 1,000 ppm within 45 minutes of ventilation cessation and closure of windows and doors


Ozone is produced by ultraviolet light from the Sun hitting the Earth’s atmosphere (especially in the ozone layer), lightning, certain high-voltage electric devices (such as air ionizers), and as a by-product of other types of pollution.

Ozone exists in greater concentrations at altitudes commonly flown by passenger jets. Reactions between ozone and onboard substances, including skin oils and cosmetics, can produce toxic chemicals as by-products. Ozone itself is also irritating to lung tissue and harmful to human health. Larger jets have ozone filters to reduce the cabin concentration to safer and more comfortable levels.

Outdoor air used for ventilation may have sufficient ozone to react with common indoor pollutants as well as skin oils and other common indoor air chemicals or surfaces. Particular concern is warranted when using “green” cleaning products based on citrus or terpene extracts, because these chemicals react very quickly with ozone to form toxic and irritating chemicals as well as fine and ultrafine particles. Ventilation with outdoor air containing elevated ozone concentrations may complicate remediation attempts.

Ozone is on the list of six criteria air pollutant list. The Clean Air Act of 1990 required the United States Environmental Protection Agency to set National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for six common indoor air pollutants harmful to human health. There are also multiple other organizations that have put forth air standards such as Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the World Health Organization (WHO). The OSHA standard for Ozone concentration within a space is 0.1 ppm. While the NAAQS and the EPA standard for ozone concentration is limited to 0.07 ppm. The type of ozone being regulated is ground-level ozone that is within the breathing range of most building occupants


Atmospheric particulate matter, also known as particulates, can be found indoors and can affect the health of occupants. Authorities have established standards for the maximum concentration of particulates to ensure indoor air quality.

Volatile organic compounds

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects. Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors. VOCs are emitted by a wide array of products numbering in the thousands. Examples include: paints and lacquers, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, office equipment such as copiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper, graphics and craft materials including glues and adhesives, permanent markers, and photographic solutions.

Chlorinated drinking water releases chloroform when hot water is used in the home. Benzene is emitted from fuel stored in attached garages. Overheated cooking oils emit acrolein and formaldehyde. A meta-analysis of 77 surveys of VOCs in homes in the US found the top ten riskiest indoor air VOCs were acrolein, formaldehyde, benzene, hexachlorobutadiene, acetaldehyde, 1,3-butadiene, benzyl chloride, 1,4-dichlorobenzene, carbon tetrachloride, acrylonitrile, and vinyl chloride. These compounds exceeded health standards in most homes.

Organic chemicals are widely used as ingredients in household products. Paints, varnishes, and wax all contain organic solvents, as do many cleaning, disinfecting, cosmetic, degreasing, and hobby products. Fuels are made up of organic chemicals. All of these products can release organic compounds during usage, and, to some degree, when they are stored. Testing emissions from building materials used indoors has become increasingly common for floor coverings, paints, and many other important indoor building materials and finishes.

Several initiatives envisage to reduce indoor air contamination by limiting VOC emissions from products. There are regulations in France and in Germany, and numerous voluntary ecolabels and rating systems containing low VOC emissions criteria such as EMICODE, M1, Blue Angel and Indoor Air Comfort in Europe, as well as California Standard CDPH Section 01350 and several others in the USA. These initiatives changed the marketplace where an increasing number of low-emitting products has become available during the last decades.

At least 18 Microbial VOCs (MVOCs) have been characterised including 1-octen-3-ol3-methylfuran2-pentanol2-hexanone2-heptanone3-octanone3-octanol2-octen-1-ol1-octene2-pentanone2-nonanoneborneolgeosmin1-butanol3-methyl-1-butanol3-methyl-2-butanol, and thujopsene. The first of these compounds is called mushroom alcohol. The last four are products of Stachybotrys chartarum, which has been linked with sick building syndrome.[22]

Secondhand tobacco smoke

Main article: Passive smoking

Secondhand smoke is tobacco smoke which affects people other than the ‘active’ smoker. Second-hand tobacco smoke includes both a gaseous and a particulate phase, with particular hazards arising from levels of carbon monoxide (as indicated below) and very small particulates (fine particular matter at especially PM2.5 size, and PM10) which get into the bronchioles and alveoles in the lung. The only certain method to improve indoor air quality as regards secondhand smoke is to eliminate smoking indoors. Indoor e-cigarette use also increases home particulate matter concentrations.

Indoor fires

Indoor fires are a major cause of indoor air pollution and cause significant health harms. Hydrocarbon fires cause air pollution. Pollution is caused by both biomass and fossil fuels of various types, but some forms of fuels are more harmful than others. Indoor fires can produce black carbon particles, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, and mercury compounds, among other emissions.[8]


Main article: Radon

Radon is an invisible, radioactive atomic gas that results from the radioactive decay of radium, which may be found in rock formations beneath buildings or in certain building materials themselves. Radon is probably the most pervasive serious hazard for indoor air in the United States and Europe, and is probably responsible for tens of thousands of deaths from lung cancer each year. There are relatively simple test kits for do-it-yourself radon gas testing, but if a home is for sale the testing must be done by a licensed person in some U.S. states. Radon gas enters buildings as a soil gas and is a heavy gas and thus will tend to accumulate at the lowest level. Radon may also be introduced into a building through drinking water particularly from bathroom showers. Building materials can be a rare source of radon, but little testing is carried out for stone, rock or tile products brought into building sites; radon accumulation is greatest for well insulated homes. The half life for radon is 3.8 days, indicating that once the source is removed, the hazard will be greatly reduced within a few weeks. Radon mitigation methods include sealing concrete slab floors, basement foundations, water drainage systems, or by increasing ventilation. They are usually cost effective and can greatly reduce or even eliminate the contamination and the associated health risks.

Radon is measured in picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L), a measurement of radioactivity. In the United States, the average indoor radon level is about 1.3 pCi/L. The average outdoor level is about 0.4 pCi/L. The U.S. Surgeon General and EPA recommend fixing homes with radon levels at or above 4 pCi/L. EPA also recommends that people think about fixing their homes for radon levels between 2 pCi/L and 4 pCi/L.

Molds and other allergens

Main articles: Mold health issues and Mold growth, assessment, and remediation

These biological chemicals can arise from a host of means, but there are two common classes: (a) moisture induced growth of mold colonies and (b) natural substances released into the air such as animal dander and plant pollen. Mold is always associated with moisture, and its growth can be inhibited by keeping humidity levels below 50%. Moisture buildup inside buildings may arise from water penetrating compromised areas of the building envelope or skin, from plumbing leaks, from condensation due to improper ventilation, or from ground moisture penetrating a building part. Even something as simple as drying clothes indoors on radiators can increase the risk of exposure to (amongst other things) Aspergillus – a highly dangerous mould that can be fatal for asthma sufferers and the elderly. In areas where cellulosic materials (paper and wood, including drywall) become moist and fail to dry within 48 hours, mold mildew can propagate and release allergenic spores into the air.

In many cases, if materials have failed to dry out several days after the suspected water event, mold growth is suspected within wall cavities even if it is not immediately visible. Through a mold investigation, which may include destructive inspection, one should be able to determine the presence or absence of mold. In a situation where there is visible mold and the indoor air quality may have been compromised, mold remediation may be needed. Mold testing and inspections should be carried out by an independent investigator to avoid any conflict of interest and to insure accurate results; free mold testing offered by remediation companies is not recommended.

There are some varieties of mold that contain toxic compounds (mycotoxins). However, exposure to hazardous levels of mycotoxin via inhalation is not possible in most cases, as toxins are produced by the fungal body and are not at significant levels in the released spores. The primary hazard of mold growth, as it relates to indoor air quality, comes from the allergenic properties of the spore cell wall. More serious than most allergenic properties is the ability of mold to trigger episodes in persons that already have asthma, a serious respiratory disease.

Carbon monoxide

One of the most acutely toxic indoor air contaminants is carbon monoxide (CO), a colourless and odourless gas that is a by-product of incomplete combustion. Common sources of carbon monoxide are tobacco smoke, space heaters using fossil fuels, defective central heating furnaces and automobile exhaust. By depriving the brain of oxygen, high levels of carbon monoxide can lead to nausea, unconsciousness and death. According to the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH), the time-weighted average (TWA) limit for carbon monoxide (630–08–0) is 25 ppm.



Legionellosis or Legionnaire’s Disease is caused by a waterborne bacterium Legionella that grows best in slow-moving or still, warm water. The primary route of exposure is through the creation of an aerosol effect, most commonly from evaporative cooling towers or showerheads. A common source of Legionella in commercial buildings is from poorly placed or maintained evaporative cooling towers, which often release water in an aerosol which may enter nearby ventilation intakes. Outbreaks in medical facilities and nursing homes, where patients are immuno-suppressed and immuno-weak, are the most commonly reported cases of Legionellosis. More than one case has involved outdoor fountains in public attractions. The presence of Legionella in commercial building water supplies is highly under-reported, as healthy people require heavy exposure to acquire infection.

Legionella testing typically involves collecting water samples and surface swabs from evaporative cooling basins, shower heads, faucets/taps, and other locations where warm water collects. The samples are then cultured and colony forming units (cfu) of Legionella are quantified as cfu/Liter.

Legionella is a parasite of protozoans such as amoeba, and thus requires conditions suitable for both organisms. The bacterium forms a biofilm which is resistant to chemical and antimicrobial treatments, including chlorine. Remediation for Legionella outbreaks in commercial buildings vary, but often include very hot water flushes (160 °F; 70 °C), sterilisation of standing water in evaporative cooling basins, replacement of shower heads, and in some cases flushes of heavy metal salts. Preventive measures include adjusting normal hot water levels to allow for 120 °F (50 °C) at the tap, evaluating facility design layout, removing faucet aerators, and periodic testing in suspect areas.

Other bacteria

There are many bacteria of health significance found in indoor air and on indoor surfaces. The role of microbes in the indoor environment is increasingly studied using modern gene-based analysis of environmental samples. Currently efforts are under way to link microbial ecologists and indoor air scientists to forge new methods for analysis and to better interpret the results.

“There are approximately ten times as many bacterial cells in the human flora as there are human cells in the body, with large numbers of bacteria on the skin and as gut flora. A large fraction of the bacteria found in indoor air and dust are shed from humans. Among the most important bacteria known to occur in indoor air are Mycobacterium tuberculosisStaphylococcus aureusStreptococcus pneumoniae.

Asbestos fibers

Many common building materials used before 1975 contain asbestos, such as some floor tiles, ceiling tiles, shingles, fireproofing, heating systems, pipe wrap, taping muds, mastics, and other insulation materials. Normally, significant releases of asbestos fiber do not occur unless the building materials are disturbed, such as by cutting, sanding, drilling, or building remodelling. Removal of asbestos-containing materials is not always optimal because the fibers can be spread into the air during the removal process. A management program for intact asbestos-containing materials is often recommended instead.

When asbestos-containing material is damaged or disintegrates, microscopic fibers are dispersed into the air. Inhalation of asbestos fibers over long exposure times is associated with increased incidence of lung cancer, in particular the specific form mesothelioma. The risk of lung cancer from inhaling asbestos fibers is significantly greater to smokers, however there is no confirmed connection to damage caused by asbestosis. The symptoms of the disease do not usually appear until about 20 to 30 years after the first exposure to asbestos.

Asbestos is found in older homes and buildings, but occurs most commonly in schools, hospitals and industrial settings. Although all asbestos is hazardous, products that are friable, eg. sprayed coatings and insulation, pose a significantly higher hazard as they are more likely to release fibers to the air. The US Federal Government and some states have set standards for acceptable levels of asbestos fibers in indoor air. There are particularly stringent regulations applicable to schools.

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