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Health Canada issues guidance on improving office building air quality

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Health Canada’s draft guidance describes the quality of the air in an office building as the result of the “complex interactions” between the ventilation system, the building, the climate, the outdoor air, the furnishings and products present, the work processes, and the occupants and their activities. Photo credit: Rawpixel.com, stock.adobe.com

*The following regulatory news article is intended to be a preview of the legislation and not a replacement for the actual guidance from the government. For the comprehensive data and all relevant information, please visit the linked source material within the article.

Health Canada has released a guide for public consultation that addresses common issues relating to indoor air quality in an office building setting.

The guide is particularly targeted towards employers, consultants, and building operators, who may refer to it for preventative measures and best practices for avoiding indoor air quality (IAQ) problems. But it also serves as a way to help determine when specific professional services may be required.

“A healthy indoor environment is one that contributes to productivity and comfort, protects the health and well-being of occupants, and is an important health and safety consideration for workplaces such as office buildings,” states Health Canada. “Many of the recommended control mechanisms that aim to improve and maintain good IAQ are also applicable when considering how to reduce the risk of infectious disease transmission,” adds the guidance document.

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The draft guidance describes the quality of the air in an office building as the result of the “complex interactions” between the ventilation system, the building, the climate, the outdoor air, the furnishings and products present, the work processes, and the occupants and their activities. The building itself can have different impacts on the interactions as the result of its age, condition, component materials, structure, and envelope, states Health Canada.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety has often led the discussion when it comes to office air quality. The independent departmental corporation accountable to the Ministry of Labour has listed what it considers to be indoor contaminants. Some elements of concern could be: carbon dioxide (heating and cooking) or carbon monoxide (external exhaust); smoking or vaping; dust, fibreglass, asbestos, gases, including formaldehyde; attached garages and parking facilities; vapours and volatile organic compounds from copying and printing machines, computers, carpets, furnishings, cleansers and disinfectants; or microbial contaminants such as fungi, moulds and bacteria.

Examining an office building for water leaks, air leaks, and insufficient intake of outside air are recommended as good places to start when trying to identify a problem. Additionally, the new draft guidance suggests to check humidity and air circulation levels, as well as to look for ceiling tile discoloration.

Exposure to indoor contaminants may result in some symptoms for office occupants. These can include dryness and irritation of the eyes, nose and throat; respiratory symptoms such as wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath; headache, fatigue, dizziness, nausea and flu-like symptoms; worsening of lung and heart conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and heart disease.

“A qualified health professional may be able to help determine whether an individual’s symptom is associated with poor IAQ,” states the draft guidance. “Poor IAQ does not affect everyone in the same way.”

Occupants typically find conditions most comfortable when the air temperature is uniform within a space with a relative humidity between 30% and 50%. When there is an issue with the air velocity or leakiness in the building envelope, occupants may report drafts experienced as an unwanted cooling of the body from air movement. In most cases, maintain office air velocity below 0.2 m/s (40 fpm) for comfort, the guide suggests.

Health Canada noted that it is important for building operators or maintenance managers to be knowledgeable about the office’s ventilation system design and operation, which includes the outdoor air supply, outdoor air quality, filters and filtration efficiency, space planning, and equipment maintenance for heating and air conditioning.

Health Canada previously published Indoor Air Reference Levels for Chronic Exposure to Volatile Organic Compounds in 2018.

The new guidance document is an update to the 1995 Health Canada publication entitled Indoor Air Quality in Office Buildings: A Technical Document. In part, the document addresses the complaint process around office air quality and how to effectively investigate the complaint. Initially, investigators should be on the lookout for indicators such as odours; overcrowding; unsanitary conditions; dust; moisture problems; visible fungal growth; staining and discoloration of ceiling tiles, walls or carpet; as well as the presence of chemical substances.

It is also recommended to create a complaint resolution team.

“It is important to continually communicate with occupants to let them know the purpose and scope of any investigation,” states the guidance document. “If the investigation will take time, post updates of any progress. Encourage occupants to participate in the process.”

The new guidance even includes an IAQ assessment checklist that teams can use for an investigation. 

Additionally, there are often ventilation requirements from applicable building codes or other standard setting organizations such as the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) Group, and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).

The Health Canada consultation document will be available until April 10.

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