Indoor Air Quality
People, young and old, spend most of their time indoors, whether in homes, offices, schools, nurseries, shops or cars. In all these environments there are consumer products and building materials which can affect indoor air quality. It could be paints, furniture and fittings, printers, cleaning agents etc., all of which all emit chemicals, not to mention other environmental pollution caused by humidity or tobacco smoke. Exposure to any of these could have a negative impact on health ranging from headaches to mucous irritation, respiratory diseases and asthma.
The Institute for Health and Consumer Protection (IHCP) is constantly involved in testing the impact of various pollutants using state-of-the-art analytical methods and models to estimate their effect on the indoor air quality.
The European Commission mandated the European standards organisation (CEN) to define a harmonised test method for determining the emission of hazardous substances from construction products. This work is now at a very advanced stage. Once the test method is available, there will be a need for performance levels to be agreed, and it is expected that these will be based on classes defined according to the amount of emission of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
In parallel, the European Commission launched an initiative intended to harmonise the health-based evaluation of emissions from building products in the EU. As a result, the ‘‘Lowest concentration of interest’’ (LCI) approach has been agreed, LCI being ‘‘the lowest concentration above which, according to best professional judgement, the pollutant may have some effect on people in the indoor environment’’. This initiative, co-ordinated by the Institute for Health and Consumer Protection (IHCP) and integrated into the EU strategy on indoor air quality led by EC Directorate General for Health and Consumer Affairs, started in 2010 with an international workshop ‘‘Harmonised framework on indoor material labelling schemes: challenge with a global perspective’’.
A preparatory group of toxicologists and experts in emission testing and product labelling was created, focusing on the development of a harmonised scheme using the LCI concept. One of its achievements is a starting list of more than 100 VOCs commonly detected in emission tests of building materials and other products used indoors. Very volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs) are also to be addressed in the future. Currently, the group's key activity is the establishment of a robust ‘‘Standard Operating Procedure’’ for the derivation of EU-LCIs, based on sound toxicological and risk assessment principles. This harmonised scheme would then be applied across Europe, ensuring better protection of the health of European citizens from potentially hazardous substances in indoor materials.
The Institute for Health and Consumer Protection has a sophisticated full-scale test room facility at its disposal called the INDOORTRON, to study the emissions of hazardous substances from consumer products and building materials.
The INDOORTRON is a 3 x 4 m walk-in environmental chamber in which parameters such as temperature, relative humidity, air quality and exchange rate, can be precisely controlled. It is an environment where air composition can be accurately measured and adjusted free of any influences from the surrounding atmosphere.
For experimental purposes, the INDOORTRON is filled with ultra-clean air. Advanced instrumentation measures concentrations of suspended particulate matter and monitors the levels of chemical compounds (VOCs - volatile organic compounds) in the chamber air. The laboratory’s control room is equipped with a computer system for remote manipulation of climatic parameters and the continuous acquisition and processing of data.
WHO indoor air quality guidelines
The Institute has recently reviewed exposure guidelines for certain indoor priority pollutants. It has also contributed to the development of the health-based indoor air quality guidelines of the World Health Organisation (WHO). These guidelines will help formulate feasible approaches for reducing health risks from exposure to typical indoor pollutants.
Indoor concentration of pollutants
One of the studies conducted by the Institute monitored indoor and outdoor air quality in relation to selected chemical substances (aromatics, carbonyls, terpenes etc.) in public buildings, schools and kindergartens across the EU. The study found that the total concentrations of volatile organic substances inside the selected buildings were higher in most cases than outdoor concentrations – and are a serious cause of concern.
Other studies undertaken by the Institute include:
the measurement of emissions from consumer products in realistic situations:
- building materials and paints
- air fresheners
- office equipments
studies on indoor air chemistry:
validation of models:
chemical spatial distribution
computational fluid dynamics