The air quality in your home is something you can control, but what if you spend 40 or more hours a week in an office building? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes that, “Most Americans spend up to 90% of their time indoors and many spend most of their working hours in an office environment. Indoor environments sometimes can have levels of pollutants that are actually higher than levels found outside.” While the majority of the air quality in a large building is affected by the actions of building management, there are things you can do to improve air quality in your office, cubicle, or other workspace. One step you can take is to use a high-quality air purifier. But what air purifier is the best one for use in an office environment?
The Problem of Air Circulation in Office Buildings
The air quality in an office is important for several reasons beyond just the amount of time you spend there. We know from multiple studies that air flow and circulation — that is, the frequency with which the inside air is replaced by air from outside — is one of the most important factors affecting indoor air quality. In an enclosed space, whatever pollutants are present will tend to build and build and become more concentrated, and therefore become more harmful. Outdoor pollutants can be dispersed by the wind and diffused into the much greater air volume of the Earth’s atmosphere. That’s why circulating outdoor air through a house or office building generally increases the air quality in the building (this is not to say, of course, that outdoor air pollution is not harmful, but that in most cases outdoor air is cleaner than indoor air).
The problem of air circulation in large buildings was made much worse by an unlikely suspect — the energy crisis of the 1970s. To conserve energy, to keep heat in during winter months and cool air in during the summer, regulations allowed buildings with air circulation rates as low as 5 cfm (cubic feet per minute) per occupant of the building. The current standard is 15 cfm per occupant, 20 cfm in an office building, and higher recommended rates in areas where smoking is allowed. So if you work in an older building, the problem of office air quality could be severe. And even a modern building can suffer from reduced air flow rates if the heating and air conditioning (HVAC) system need maintenance, or if HVAC vents are covered by furniture.
Common Office Building Pollutants
The pollutants found in an office are generally the same you might find in your home, but often in different concentrations and for different reasons. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says that “some specific diseases have been linked to specific air contaminants or indoor environments, like asthma with damp indoor environments. In addition, some exposures, such as asbestos and radon, do not cause immediate symptoms but can lead to cancer after many years,” and also warns of, “specific contaminants like dust from construction or renovation, mold, cleaning supplies, pesticides, or other airborne chemicals (including small amounts of chemicals released as a gas over time).”
The air quality in an office setting might differ from that in your home because of factors you can’t control. This can include a smokers’ lounge or work processes that emit gases or other pollutants. In new buildings or buildings that have been recently renovated, air quality can be impacted by the buildup of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) given off by office furniture, carpeting, cleaning materials, and even paper supplies. These often occur in greater concentrations in offices than in the typical home.
What’s worse is that office buildings can turn into incubators for disease, spreading bacterial or viral infections through the HVAC system. The most famous example is the 1976 Legionnaires Disease outbreak in Philadelphia, in which contaminated water spread a bacterial infection through the air-conditioning system. Twenty-nine people ultimately died from the resulting infection.
Researchers have also identified an insidious illness known as sick building syndrome. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports several symptoms that, when not tied to any other specific cause, make up sick building syndrome: “Headache, dizziness, nausea, eye, nose or throat irritation, dry cough, dry or itching skin, difficulty in concentration, fatigue, sensitivity to odours, hoarseness of voice, allergies, cold, flu-like symptoms, increased incidence of asthma attacks and personality changes. The cause of the symptoms is not known. It reduces work efficiency and increases absenteeism. Most of the complainants report relief soon after leaving the building, although lingering effects of neurotoxins can occur.”
It’s more than a health problem — studies have found that reduced air quality has a negative impact on worker performance, and one Harvard study (MacNaughton et al., 2015) showed increased cognitive function in workers who’d spent a day in a space with increased air quality. The researchers estimated that doubling ventilation rates in an office could lead to a $6,500 per person annual increase in productivity.
Given the variety of pollutants you might encounter in an office — VOCs, dust, allergens, tobacco smoke, biological contaminants like bacteria, viruses, or mold, what steps can you take to improve the air quality in your office space?
You have less control over the sources of pollutants in an office than you do in your home, so to some extent, the usual advice of “remove the source” is less of an option at work. However, there are things you can control. Take out garbage frequently and clean up spills immediately. Don’t block HVAC vents, since air circulation is very important. Of course, if there is a serious pollutant source that needs to be taken care of, you should contact building management.
There’s another easy way to improve the air quality in your office — get a plant. Researchers working for NASA, looking into ways to improve air quality in space stations (which have no outside air circulation at all), found that, “Epipremnum aureum, also known as devil’s ivy, grown on an activated carbon filter system reduced air levels of benzene and trichloroethylene inside a Plexiglas chamber measuring 0.58 cubic yard from approximately 36 ppm to barely detectable levels within 2 hours.”
Even if you can’t replicate the exact conditions of the study, it’s clear that some healthy plants will pull VOCs out of the air, generate oxygen, and overall improve air quality, especially if you work in an enclosed office. If you work in a cubicle or an open plan office, see if you can get your co-workers to add plants to their workspaces as well.
Of course, an excellent solution to office air quality problems is to use an air purifier. Let’s take a look at the different types of air purifiers and see which one is best suited to keeping your office air healthy.
The Best Air Purifier for the Office
It can be difficult to find a single air purifier that meets your needs in an office because most types of air purifiers have drawbacks or are not able to remove every kind of pollutant from the air.
Some air purifiers that include a true HEPA filter can remove large particulate matter from the air — this includes dust and pet dander (which may be less of a problem in an office). However, these purifiers can’t remove gaseous pollutants like VOCs or particles smaller than 0.3 microns.
Activated carbon filters may remove some VOCs from the air, which is especially important in an office. However, they don’t efficiently trap particulate pollutants, and they also require frequent replacement. In an office, where the filter will be exposed to many pollutants, the frequent replacement could become an expensive nuisance.
Air purifiers that use UV light, ozone, or ionization to remove or destroy pollutants are ineffective — while UV light can be used to purify, commercial UV purifiers are simply far too small and weak to clean the volume of air necessary to make any kind of difference in an office setting. Ionizing and ozone generating air purifiers are a bad idea, because the ozone they create, either intentionally or as a byproduct, is actually harmful, especially in an enclosed office.
The Molekule air purifier, which uses patented PECO technology, has a lot of advantages since it can destroy the full spectrum of pollutants in the air, including allergens, bacteria, mold, viruses, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). This ability to destroy bacteria and viruses can help you avoid sick building syndrome. It is also portable, so if you move around at work — from an office to a meeting room to a workspace — this type of air purifier could be the perfect solution.
To learn more about the Molekule air purifier and its many features, check out the product highlight page here.