Contaminated Offices

The other day a friend complained about the fatigue and headaches she and her office associates kept feeling in their office. After some inquiries they are persuaded that their afflictions have their source in some form of indoor pollution at their place of work.
Hearing her description reminded me of all the concern over home and office indoor emissions from asbestos, carbon dioxide, PCBs and a variety of other vapors that made the news during the late Seventies. At that time there was an active section of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) working on the problem. But since Mr. Reagan took office, that concern at EPA turned to stone.

An eighteen story state office building in Binghamton has stood empty since early 1981 due to its contamination by PCB when an electrical transformer exploded and sprayed this dangerous chemical through the ventilation ducts into the offices. Other buildings, including thousands of schools, have been found to have hazardous levels of cancer-causing asbestos particles in the air. Arid not a week goes by without cur hearing from homeowners worried about formaldehyde pollution from insulation or laminated wood products.

Now comes a new study by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) that should perk some commitment to action by the environmental agencies of our national and state governments. ORNL completed a year-long 40-home survey in the Knoxville-Oak Ridge area to understand better the chemical composition of the home atmosphere. The homes represented different ages, construction and heating/cooling designs.

The Oak Ridge report found that formaldehyde concentrations were nearly twice as high in homes less than five years old than in older houses because “formaldehyde resins from new building materials tend to ‘out-gas’ vapors more strongly.” Unvented gas stoves can raise, while operating, the nitrogen oxide level about the EPA standard for outside air. “Gasoline fumes, traceable to storage containers or vehicles in attached garages,” the report observes, “were present in amounts greater than those measured outdoors.”

In their recent book, “Office Work Can Be Dangerous to Your Health (Pantheon, N.Y.), Dr. Jeanne Stellman and Mary Sue Henifin include a handy health and safety questionnaire that can guide office workers in tracking the causes of their discomforts or illnesses. This survey is divided into sections on evaluating ventilation and air quality, lighting, video display terminals, other office machines and supplies.

Landlords can be assisted in sampling office air by local public health departments or by state and national occupational safety and health agencies. For example, OSHA, the federal job safety agency, has responded to building owners in Washington, D.C. requesting air sampling tests.

Productivity is also at stake, in addition to health problems. So many people find that florescent lights are making them drowsy or the glare is irritating to their eyes. More research is needed to validate or reject preliminary work suggesting adverse health effects of this lighting which is prone to flickering and an irritating humming noise.

All of the work done so far on indoor environmental problems seems to have little impact on Reagan’s policies. Even the aroused worry by parents over asbestos in the schools has been met with indifference by the President and his advisers. Federal assistance to protect our nation’s school children, estimated to cost $100,000 per affected school, has not been forthcoming.

When you next hear some politicians declaring that too much is being spent in a wasteful way on military defense, you max wish to put in a good word for spending a little on health defense right here in the U.S.A.

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