Indoor Air Quality
INDOOR AIR QUALITY: INTRODUCTION
The connection between the use of a building either as a workplace or as a dwelling and the appearance, in certain cases, of discomfort and symptoms that may be the very definition of an illness is a fact that can no longer be disputed. The main culprit is contamination of various kinds within the building, and this contamination is usually referred to as "poor quality of indoor air". The adverse effects due to poor air quality in closed spaces affect a considerable number of people, since it has been shown that urban dwellers spend between 58 and 78% of their time in an indoor environment which is contaminated to a greater or lesser degree. These problems have increased with the construction of buildings that are designed to be more airtight and that recycle air with a smaller proportion of new air from the outside in order to be more energy efficient. The fact that buildings that do not offer natural ventilation present risks of exposure to contaminants is now generally accepted. The term indoor air is usually applied to nonindustrial indoor environments: office buildings, public buildings (schools, hospitals, theatres, restaurants, etc.) and private dwellings. Concentrations of contaminants in the indoor air of these structures are usually of the same order as those commonly found in outdoor air, and are much lower than those found in air in industrial premises, where relatively well-known standards are applied in order to assess air quality. Even so, many building occupants complain of the quality of the air they breathe and there is therefore a need to investigate the situation. Indoor air quality began to be referred to as a problem at the end of the 1960s, although the first studies did not appear until some ten years later. Although it would seem logical to think that good air quality is based on the presence in the air of the necessary components in suitable proportions, in reality it is the user, through respiration, who is the best judge of its quality. This is because inhaled air is perceived perfectly through the senses, as human beings are sensitive to the olfactory and irritant effects of about half a million chemical compounds. Consequently, if the occupants of a building are as a whole satisfied with the air, it is said to be of high quality; if they are unsatisfied, it is of poor quality. Does this mean that it is possible to predict on the basis of its composition how the air will be perceived? Yes, but only in part. This method works well in industrial environments, where specific chemical compounds related to production are known, and their concentrations in the air are measured and compared with threshold limit values. But in nonindustrial buildings where there may be thousands of chemical substances in the air but in such low concentrations that they are, perhaps, thousands of times less than the limits set for industrial environments, the situation is different. In most of these cases information about the chemical composition of indoor air does not allow us to predict how the air will be perceived, since the combined effect of thousands of these contaminants, together with temperature and humidity, can produce air that is perceived as irritating, foul, or stale—that is, of poor quality. The situation is comparable to what happens with the detailed composition of an item of food and its taste: chemical analysis is inadequate to predict whether the food will taste good or bad. For this reason, when a ventilation system and its regular maintenance are being planned, an exhaustive chemical analysis of indoor air is rarely called for. Another point of view is that people are considered the only sources of contamination in indoor air. This would certainly be true if we were dealing with building materials, furniture and ventilation systems as they were used 50 years ago, when bricks, wood and steel predominated. But with modern materials the situation...
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