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EARTHWATCH

Indoor Poison : Today's "sealed" buildings, experts say, trap air that's unhealthier than the smog outside.

May 16, 1991|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Puzzling news. According to the current Fortune magazine, Desert Storm military folks, recently arrived home, are raiding their PXs in the United States for rug and room deodorizers, air fresheners and allergy relief products. Sales are up 25%.

What's going on here? Is Yankee air less fresh than Saudi air?

You'll notice that most of these products are for use inside. Evidently when troopers came back, they noticed something here they had been living with all along. Indoor pollution. Sometimes called "sick building syndrome."

You've read about people getting asthma, rashes, nausea, etc., from the chemical fumes that collect in condos and offices? There have even been lawsuits filed. One, settled out of court for more than $600,000 in 1987, involved formaldehyde fumes in a new office building in Goleta.

Why is this suddenly a problem? Well, since the 1970s' energy crunch and smog scares, building codes have been written to "protect" us from 95% of outside air.

"It's like being in a submarine," says Robert Phalen, an environmental safety specialist at UC Irvine. In such a "glass and gasket" building, he said, "the air can get 100 times as bad as it is outside."

Man-made chemicals and natural gases such as radon have been getting the media attention. "But the biogenics, such as fungi and molds, are far more toxic," Phalen said. "Formaldehyde in the wallboard is the least of our troubles."

Simi Valley indoor air pollution expert Bobby Bronson reminded me that airborne "biotics" in the air ducts of a Philadelphia hotel transmitted the famous--and fatal--Legionnaire's disease to its victims.

To save money on home and office heating and air conditioning, it is common, Bronson says, for "exhaust vents to be closed down, forcing the ventilation system to recirculate existing air rather than fresh air . . . dispersing pollutants present in the building over and over again." He estimates that 25% of newly built and "sealed" buildings operate with no fresh air at all.

According to the American Lung Assn., "a great variety of infectious diseases are spread because the fungi and bacteria find nourishment in inadequately maintained air-circulation systems." However, says Dana Dieterman, an indoor air expert with the Ventura County health department, "52% of the symptoms go away if you increase the new air."

By that, he means opening the window or modifying the ventilating system to get in at least 20% fresh air rather than the 5% some systems--in compliance with the building code--were designed to take in.

Beyond these sensible measures to cure a sick building, experts strongly recommend what I'm going to call an "ecological chimney sweep."

This involves nothing more than regularly scheduled air-conditioning and heating system maintenance and cleaning--including the ducting. Dust--and bacteria--piles up in air ducts. And have you ever noticed those trails of smudge creeping out of the air-conditioner vent? That's a sure sign they need cleaning.

Bronson, by the way, has spent 20 years fighting this sort of thing, having been a hospital hygiene supervisor before setting up his business, Superior Air Cleaning Systems, in Simi Valley.

He put me on to a Houston firm that markets a clever new air filter--Enviro Guard. The usual fiberglass filters you and I use capture only about 10% of dust and particles in the air. And who among us replaces our filters regularly? The new electrostatic filters catch so much stuff that the firm recommends that you pluck them out of your system monthly and wash them to get rid of the pollutants you've nabbed. Fiberglass filters, on the other hand, are supposed to be checked and replaced annually.

All this sounds like a lot of work, and it is. But at least it's better than suffering from runny noses, asthma, rashes or worse. And it's certainly more effective than rushing to the PX or supermarket to get chemicals to cover up the problem and remind one of the sweet smell of Arabia.

* FYI

* Ventura County health department: indoor air pollution expert Dana Dieterman, 654-5039.

* State of California Radon Hot Line: (800) 745-RADON.

* For air-conditioning and heating-system cleaning, contact a maintenance service in your community. To find a local business that stocks Enviro Guard air cleaners, call (713) 467-4477.

* For commercial tenants or owners requiring a professional referral on indoor air problems, call the American Industrial Hygiene Assn., (216) 873-2442.

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