Indoor air quality issues
Poor air quality in buildings may cause occupants to become ill.

There seems to be a systemic problem locally as it relates to building management practices. We see these issues being reported more frequently ever since the indoor air quality issues at Cornwall Regional Hospital (CRH) in 2018, which is still yet to be fully resolved.

Many people often reduce these indoor air quality issues to the age of the building; however, whether a building is 40 or five years old, they are not immune from indoor air quality issues. Within the last 10 years we’ve seen indoor air quality issues at Cornwall Regional Hospital; 138 Student Living at The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona; Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM) offices in New Kingston; Sir Allister McIntyre Building at The UWI, Mona; The Auditor General’s Department; various offices of the Tax Administration of Jamaica, and most recently University Hospital of the West Indies Sterile Processing Department.

Several issues impact quality of indoor air and the effects on building occupants. Impacts to indoor air quality include, inter alia, building design; type(s) and quality of construction materials; design of heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems; maintenance protocols; use of building; and occupancy rate.

When it comes to impacts on occupants, the factors include, inter alia, pre-existing conditions (such as asthma), age, and sex (male or female).

Of all the factors listed, inadequate maintenance protocols are among the top causes of poor indoor quality in Jamaica. I have been involved in innumerable indoor air quality assessment exercises as the sampling technician, project lead, or data analyst across every sector in Jamaica, and the bulk of identified issues are always related to what kind of, how, and how often maintenance activities are done. This, despite the existence of inadequate ventilation, change of use or overcrowding, for example.

This is not to say that these other factors are not also important contributors to indoor air quality problems; however, if building managers pay more attention to preventative maintenance instead of corrective maintenance, then many of the air quality issues being reported would not exist and others would occur at a much lower frequency and smaller scale.

As a building ages preventative maintenance of critical areas and infrastructure becomes more important as a part of building management. Even more so, we must also pay attention to the kinds of activities occurring within the building. However, building management begins at the design phase as that will inform the building layout, construction materials, occupancy levels, personnel exclusions, and maintenance protocols.

That said, change of use also causes a lot of indoor air quality issues. Change of use includes the introduction of a new layout, activities, and occupancy levels for which the building was not initially designed. Usually, in my experience as an air quality professional, change of use is not often accompanied by the necessary reconfiguration of HVAC systems. This often leads to inadequate heating, poor exchanges, and build up of toxic gases.

Indoor air quality assessments (IAQs) meant to diagnose issues within the building includes conducting gaseous readings throughout the building. These can include carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, oxygen, ozone, hydrogen sulfide, and total volatile organic compounds. Microbial assessments are also routinely done to include yeast and mould quantification and identification as well as an assessment of total aerobic bacteria. Other components of IAQs include heating and ventilation assessments, which include audits of the HVAC system and associated measurements of temperature and relative humidity so we get a complete picture of what’s happening inside buildings. For example, when we identify an overgrowth of mould, it is usually associated with leaks, high relative humidity, and temperature differentials. Leaks are maintenance issues which can increase relative humidity and relative humidity is mediated by temperature in closed spaces.

Indoor air quality is important as people spend a good part of their days inside, especially for work, and whether they have an underlying illness, individuals can experience illnesses associated with the building. This is usually how we end up with building-related/induced illnesses and sick building syndrome (SBS). This term, according to Sumedha M Joshi in ‘The sick building syndrome’, published in Indian Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine, is “used to describe a situation in which the occupants of a building experience acute health or comfort-related effects that are linked directly to the time spent in the building. No specific illness or cause can be identified”. These concerns should never be taken lightly and we have seen many reports to this end in the local media, with the most recent being about the ODPEM office in New Kingston. (https://jamaica-gleaner.com/article/lead-stories/20220522/mould-disaster-rattles-odpem-staff)

With buildings construction booming, especially in the already-congested city of Kingston, which is set to hit climate departure in 2023, we must question our building construction standards and rules for maintenance, viz occupational health and safety requirements. Do we have standards for these?

The Building Act, a step in the right direction (replacing the Parish Councils Building Act and the Kingston and St Andrew Building Act) to ensure construction standards are met, came into force in 2018 but does not address management of said buildings.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act, which would address these kinds of workplace hazards, thus providing some kind of prescription to address building use and maintenance is taking an inordinately long time to be passed. Our lawmakers need to move swiftly as there is need to consider that the health bill — yet to be fully realised — from this lack of standards and management as it relates to buildings and occupational and public spaces is going to haunt us for years to come. Together, and if implemented fully, these two pieces of legislation would minimise, and in some cases, end the unfortunate occurrence of severe indoor air quality problems that often lead to building-related illnesses.

Emme Christie is the associate director of Jamaica Climate Change Youth Council and an environmental and data management consultant. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or emmechristie@gmail.com.

EMME CHRISTIE

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