Indoor Air Quality

New Guidance for Vapor Intrusion Investigations and Response Actions

The quality of outdoor air frequently comes to mind as an important public health concern and rightly so. What sometimes gets lost in the shuffle, though, is the role indoor air quality plays in public health. With the average American spending nearly 90 percent of his or her time indoors, the quality of air in our homes, schools, offices and other buildings is also critical to people’s health.

Vapor intrusion is a type of indoor air pollution that occurs when hazardous vapors from underground contaminated sources, like ground water, seep into buildings through openings such as cracks in basements. The vapors can build up to the point where the health or safety of residents or workers in an affected building could be at risk. Sensitive and vulnerable segments of the population, like pregnant women and the elderly, can be especially susceptible to indoor vapors. Vapor intrusion is a potential concern at any building—existing or planned—located near soil or groundwater that contains toxic chemicals that form vapors.   Early identification and remediation is critical to protect communities.

To support vapor intrusion investigations and cleanup activities across the country, we recently released two technical guides. One guide, the Technical Guide for Assessing and Mitigating the Vapor Intrusion Pathway from Subsurface Vapor Sources to Indoor Air applies to all sites being evaluated under federal land cleanup statutes by EPA, other federal agencies, state and tribal governments and brownfields grantees. A companion document, the Technical Guide for Addressing Petroleum Vapor Intrusion at Leaking Underground Storage Tank Sites addresses any site where vapor intrusion related to petroleum contamination from underground storage tanks is a potential concern. Relying on a large body of peer-reviewed science, the guides allow for flexible and effective approaches for a variety of situations. We believe that states, tribes and localities will find them helpful for vapor intrusion assessments, risk management decisions and mitigation actions.

National awareness and concern about vapor intrusion has grown over the last several decades.  At the same time, our knowledge of and experience with vapor intrusion has increased substantially, leading to better approaches for evaluating and managing it. The guides harness this knowledge and present our current recommendations for identifying, evaluating and mitigating vapor intrusion in both residential and non-residential settings.

While vapor intrusion can pose a serious threat to people’s health in certain circumstances if it goes unaddressed, the good news is that exposures usually can be prevented or reduced through relatively simple actions such as changing building pressure and ventilation. In most cases, costs associated with addressing vapor intrusion can be very manageable, resulting in long-term benefits including improved public health and savings down the road, especially when issues are addressed early.

For more information, visit: http://www.epa.gov/oswer/vaporintrusion/

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Indoor Air Quality in Schools – Concerns and Need for Low-Cost Solutions

By Richard Corsi

University of Texas at Austin IAQ Research Team Goes Back to High School.  From left to right: Associate Professor Atila Novoselac, researcher Sarah Wu, Professor Kerry Kinney, Professor Richard Corsi, and Research Engineer Neil Crain.

University of Texas at Austin Research Team Goes Back to High School. From left to right: Associate Professor Atila Novoselac, Researcher Sarah Wu, Professor Kerry Kinney, Professor Richard Corsi, and Research Engineer Neil Crain.

I am excited to be directing a new multi-year U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grant related to Healthy Schools titled, Healthy High School PRIDE (Partnership in Research on InDoor Environments). My team is focusing on high schools, a relatively under-studied school environment with numerous data gaps.

Evidence has mounted regarding the contributions of poor indoor air quality and inadequate classroom ventilation toward student illnesses, absenteeism, and decreases in academic performance. Teachers are also affected, with higher rates of work-related upper-respiratory problems compared to the rest of the working population. Importantly, this problem has not been improving and there is a growing base of literature that suggests that we are failing our children in an environment that is critical to both their health and future success.

Our team  will complete detailed studies of heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system performance and air flow characteristics in classrooms, a topic of great importance with respect to student health, comfort, and performance, and one that is often oversimplified. We will characterize HVAC system performance and increase knowledge of how HVAC operation affects pollutant migration through both occupied and hidden spaces of buildings that can be sources of pollution.

Most homeowners, businesses, and school districts dispose of their used HVAC filters in the trash bin and they are ultimately buried in landfills.  Our team sees them as valuable biological samplers.  We will collect used HVAC filters from high schools and perform analyses to characterize microorganisms that were in classroom air.

My students and I have been exploring oxygen-containing compounds that I hypothesize are in-part responsible for upper airway irritations that can distract students in classroom environments. These compounds are often overlooked in studies of indoor air quality in schools, and their abundance and sources will be central to our study of high schools.

Most school districts have budget constraints that preclude an ability to significantly improve indoor environmental conditions in classrooms.  I am excited that our team will also test low-cost engineering solutions to indoor environmental quality issues in participating schools.   Our findings should be of value to both participating schools, and hopefully school districts across the country.

Our research will also be a learning experience. High school students will complete workshops related to indoor environmental quality and team-based projects on indoor air quality at the University of Texas at Austin.  And Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) teachers at our participating high schools will use our study as examples for discussions in their classrooms related to indoor environmental science and engineering, and data analysis and visualization methods.

It actually feels great to be going back to high school!

About the Author: Richard L. Corsi is the E.C.H. Bantel Professor for Professional Practice and Chair of the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.  He teaches courses related to fluid mechanics and indoor air quality, and has completed extensive research related to the sources, chemistry, and passive control of indoor air pollution.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Radon Risk? You Don’t Know Until You Test

By Henry Slack

My neighbors Pete and Beth (not their real names) met while in their twenties, and got married. A great couple. Had two beautiful girls, who grew up in no time at all – field trips and soccer, high school sports, college, adventures abroad. A strong couple, who helped lead the PTA, the band parents, you name it. Never smoked, good folks, the kind you like to have as neighbors.

Then Pete got lung cancer. They had some optimism over treatment, but the optimism faded as the disease strengthened, and he passed pretty quickly. Lung cancer, unfortunately, has a survival rate lower than many other types of cancer.

I don’t know for sure that Pete’s lung cancer was caused by radon. But, radon is the #1 cause of lung cancer for non-smokers. Elevated radon is found in one out of 15 homes nationally, and the only way to know if a home has high levels is to test it.

As EPA’s indoor air guy for the southeast, I get calls every day. Most people are worried about mold. A few are worried about odors, or chemicals they may have been exposed to, or some health issue that they think might be related to indoor air quality. Very few people call with concerns about radon – and yet, radioactive radon gas kills more people than any of those other things that people call about. Radon kills over 21,000 people a year in the U.S.

Twenty-one thousand. That’s around 400 a week, every week, every year. Some of them are parents, spouses, partners, best friends, and neighbors who leave behind a world of grief for family, like Beth.

Test your home. It’s easy and inexpensive. You can get low-cost test kits online through the National Radon Program Services or other vendors. And if you have a high level – 4 picocuries and above – get your home fixed.

About the Author: Henry Slack has been the Indoor Air coordinator in Region 4 since 1991 and still enjoys it. A mechanical engineer by training, he’s on the Radon Team, but has had assignments to CDC and Barbados. In 2014, he became a Distinguished Lecturer for American Society of Heating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), speaking about mold, indoor air, and ventilation.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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EPA Releases New Indoor Air Quality and Energy Efficiency Guidance for Schools

Colorado Springs School District 11 is set to save more than $928,000 on its energy bill every year, thanks to an effort to increase energy efficiency and protect indoor air quality.

This month we released our Energy Savings Plus Health: Indoor Air Quality Guidelines for School Building Upgrades, a guidance document designed to help schools reduce their environmental impact and ensure clean air for their students. Just like School District 11 in Colorado Springs, schools will likely be able to save some money, too.

Our new guidelines highlight best practices for addressing 23 critical indoor air quality topics, including moisture and mold control; hazardous materials such as asbestos and lead; building products and materials; and heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. They also examine how schools can think about improving indoor air quality while doing renovations to improve energy efficiency, and how renovations can achieve both goals.

One in five people across the U.S. are in a school building during school hours. Schools are often used as recreation centers, meeting places, and emergency shelters, too. They are one of the most visited buildings in many communities, so many people are affected when schools know how to operate efficiently while maintaining healthy indoor environments.

School districts across the country will reap the benefits of improved student and staff health, and they will also save precious dollars through reduced operational costs. We know that indoor air quality plays a critical role in health, attendance, and academic performance. Improving energy efficiency can also have significant environmental and economic benefits.

In addition to all the benefits school districts will see right away, focusing in on energy efficiency and indoor air quality together can help schools to shrink their carbon footprints and energy use, and prepare for potential impacts of climate change, including people choosing to spend more time indoors.

Be sure to check out our other publications and resources on good indoor air quality in the design, construction, renovation, maintenance, and operations of school buildings.

 

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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EPA, Schools and Communities Work Together to Reduce Asthma

By Dr. Teresa Lipsett-Ruiz

Visitors to Puerto Rico often come to bask in the island’s warmth and waves. But, our tropical environment also contributes to the asthma problem that affects about 1 in 10 people here.

In close partnership with EPA, our university-based indoor air quality program builds partnerships with students, schools and the community to improve the environmental conditions in schools and reduce student absences caused by asthma. It has worked! Over the past 6 years, the schools that we’ve worked with have seen significant decreases in the number of missed school days.

Mountainous areas such as the Puerto Rican municipalities of Caguas and Gurabo are surrounded by humid valleys known as “asthma hotspots,” yet asthma education is not always available there. In response, we created a program with EPA that focuses on three key elements: (1) information resources and checklists, (2) school “walkthroughs,” and (3) partnerships with school officials and the community to physically remove indoor environmental asthma triggers.

Our program relies on EPA’s Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Tools for Schools guidance and Spanish-language indoor checklists to educate the community and schools on managing environmental asthma triggers. Working with the Puerto Rico Department of Education, we hold IAQ Workshops on asthma triggers.

During school walkthroughs, we often find pest problems—cockroaches, rats and mice—as well as moldy, wet cardboard boxes overflowing with paper. We then formulate a plan to address these asthma triggers.
At first, some teachers were skeptical. They were worried that this was another burden piled onto their busy schedules. Enthusiasm grew, however, when the students and the community began to help. As the old saying goes, “many hands make light work.” The school community came together for a “mega green cleaning” of the school. To check our effectiveness, we collected mold samples before and after our plans were put in place and mold counts dropped significantly.

With the support of school officials, we implemented our program at 32 schools, which resulted in a 38 percent reduction in student absenteeism due to asthma. Based on these impressive results, we now are expanding the program in partnership with EPA. To learn more, listen to my presentation in EPA’s Back-to-School Webinar: Managing Asthma in Schools. Our communities are proud to have improved both their health and student attendance. We invite you to pursue similar programs in your schools and community.

About the author: Dr. Lipsett-Ruiz is the Dean of the School of Science and Technology in Universidad del Turabo in Puerto Rico. Her partnership with EPA has trained more than 150 teachers in 100 schools on practical steps to asthma management. The program leverages school clubs, blogs, conferences, theater play, and role modeling exercises, along with EPA information resources to reduce student absenteeism due to asthma.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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For A Safe And Healthy Home

By Lina Younes

Are you handy around the house? Are you skilled at using tools and fixing things? Would you consider yourself a do-it-yourselfer? Well, certain home repairs and remodeling activities can harm your health and that of your family if not done properly.

Here are some tips to make those needed repairs while protecting your home environment:

Lead– Do you live in a home built before 1978? It may have lead-based paint. Lead is a toxic metal that adversely affects people’s nervous system and causes behavioral, learning and hearing problems. If you are going to paint your home, you should work safely. Use protective clothing and the right equipment to prevent old lead-based paint chips or lead dust from contaminating the air during the renovation process.

Mold – Do you have leaky faucets or water damage inside your home? Moisture or water accumulation may lead to a problem with mold. In turn, mold spores indoors can cause allergic reactions and other health problems. It’s important to fix any plumbing or water problems as soon as possible. Dry all items completely.

Indoor air quality – Poor ventilation is one of the main culprits of poor indoor air quality. Clean your air filters regularly to ensure good air quality and improve the energy efficiency of your air conditioning and heating system. Not only does that improve your health and the efficiency of your system, but in the long run it saves you money, too.

Pesticides – When it comes to pest control, prevention is key. However, if in spite of your best efforts towards integrated pest management, those unwanted creatures infest your home, what should you do? Use pesticides properly and start by reading the label first.

As you can see, with some simple steps, you can make sure that your home is a healthy place for you and your family. Here is some additional information to help you save energy, save money and make your home greener and healthier.

Do you have any do-it-yourself tips that you would like to share with us? We would love to hear from you.

About the author:  Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and currently serves the Multilingual Communications Liaison for EPA. She manages EPA’s social media efforts in Spanish. Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Oklahoma School Shows How to Improve Indoor Air Quality

Isn’t it great when a plan comes together? Schools across the nation are finding out that a good indoor air quality (IAQ) plan can make a big difference for a child’s education and health. As an asthmatic, I know firsthand the importance of creating a healthy indoor environment. As the schools coordinator for EPA Region 6, it’s great to see schools being proactive about addressing IAQ comprehensively and making students’ health a priority.

One school in particular ─ Ponca City Public Schools in rural Oklahoma ─ is a good example of how to take action to improve IAQ for students and staff. These efforts can be replicated in any school, and it is definitely a lesson worth sharing.

The school district started by reaching out to experts and finding mentorship from other school districts that were dealing with similar issues. They soon began using EPA’s IAQ Tools for Schools Kit, which became an invaluable asset. The kit helped them develop an IAQ management program, identify and prioritize improvements, and communicate successes.

To focus its efforts, Ponca City organized an IAQ team to help coordinate actions. EPA’s guidelines helped the team identify specific tasks to improve school IAQ. They worked through technical concerns and challenges using the Framework for Effective School IAQ Management. Steps toward improvement included minimizing clutter in classrooms and ensuring adequate air ventilation.

A key to the program’s success was communication: communicating their efforts helped secure buy-in and support. By implementing an online survey, everyone was involved in the process, which also gave the district an opportunity to evaluate its new initiative through feedback. Anyone interested in improving a school’s IAQ should take note: sharing your program’s goals, activities, results and next steps is essential to gaining community buy-in and sustaining a long-term IAQ management program.

Ponca City’s road to success proves to me that any district — regardless of location or size — can work to develop a successful IAQ management program. Research links improvements in school air quality to enhance academic performance.  I was amazed to see how proud IAQ team members became of the work they do each day once they understood the connections between IAQ, health and academic achievement. I am proud of Ponca City’s tale, and I hope other school districts make the commitment to create healthy environments in our nation’s schools.

About the author: Stacy Murphy has been the schools coordinator for EPA Region 6 —serving Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and 66 tribes — since March 2006. He is responsible for coordinating all activities related to the impact of indoor environmental quality in school districts, and the main tool he uses when discussing IAQ with school districts in his region is the IAQ Tools for Schools Action Kit.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Spring Cleaning for a Healthy Home

By Lina Younes

As we see the first signs of the new season, it’s easy to get into the mood for spring cleaning around the house. We just want to open the windows, freshen the air, put away the heavy coats and signs of winter inside the home. During this process, we start thinking of giving a thorough cleaning around the house and even a fresh coat of paint or doing some renovations. How can we make sure that during this process, we are making our home environment healthier? Well, here are some green tips for your consideration.

Thinking of giving your kitchen or bathrooms a good scrubbing? Do you want to make sure that the chemicals that you are using are safe and green? Here’s a suggestion. Use cleaning products with the Design for the Environment label. (DfE). What is the DfE exactly? It’s an EPA partnership program. Those products with the DfE label have been screened carefully for potential human health and environmental effects to ensure that they are produced with the safest ingredients possible.

Another common spring cleaning practice? Painting! It’s an easy way to give a whole new look to home. However, if your home was built before 1978, it is very likely that it has lead-based paint. Lead is a toxic metal found in paints and buildings built before 1978 and it can cause serious damage to the brain, learning problems and even hearing problems. So if you are thinking about painting around the house or making some renovations, get some useful information on making these renovations safely or getting a certified contractor.

Thinking of some major repairs such as getting water efficient toilets or new household appliances? Look at products with the WaterSense label for greater water efficiency or Energy Star appliances to save energy, money, and protect the environment.

Over the winter, did you have problems with snow and a leaky basement? Make sure to correct the any mold problems and get proper ventilation to ensure good indoor air quality in your home.

So, do you have any grand spring cleaning plans in mind? Share your thoughts. We love to hear from you.

About the author: Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and currently serves as EPA’s Multilingual Outreach and Communications Liaison in the Office of External Affairs and Environmental Education. Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Asthma Awareness Project in Puerto Rico

By Carmen Torrent

Recently, I had a respiratory problem and had to use an inhaler to breathe better. It’s very difficult to describe the sensation of helplessness that I felt because I never experienced something like that before. I was very lucky because I was with two of my colleagues who knew what to do due to their training. That experience has increased my passion to continue my outreach efforts at EPA educating the Latino community about Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) and asthma management.

I am the EPA project officer working with a Turabo University in Puerto Rico project led by Dr. Teresa Lipsett. This project, Indoor Air Quality Champions in Puerto Rico, is funded by EPA. Dr. Lipsett and her team of students, teachers, and volunteers are known for their enthusiasm for increasing the knowledge about indoor air quality (IAQ) and asthma management in public schools in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico has one of the highest rates of asthma in the world; about 30% of Puerto Rican children have asthma.

Among the main objectives of this project are: increase the number of public schools with effective indoor air quality management practices and plans based on the EPA IAQ Tools for Schools program; create an asthma friendly environment; transforming school teachers into IAQ champions thru IAQ education and support; and build local capacity to create and sustain and IAQ programs in participating schools.

The University of Turabo team translated the IAQ Tools for Schools guidance and adapted it to the Puerto Rican culture to be used at participating schools. As part of this project, team members conduct IAQ trainings, host educational panel and conferences, created ecological clubs (EKOLOG), maintain a Facebook page, and have recorded plays available on You Tube.

During the first year of this project Dr. Lipsett and her team were able to educate more than 6,000 students, teachers and parents. By the end of the four year agreement UT expects to reach more than 38,000 students, teachers and parents.

The passion and devotion of the University of Turabo team are amazing. Their dedication overflows in abundance and even excites the children. Watch this video of students singing about improving their school’s indoor air quality to the tune of Puerto Rican style Christmas carols.  I’m proud to be part of this effort.

You can find more information about this project online at Asthma Community Network.

About the author: Carmen Torrent a public affairs specialist in EPA’s Office of Indoor Air.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Educational Resources & Activities

By Carly Carroll

Going into classrooms and sharing environmental has always been my favorite part of being an environmental educator. One of my favorite experiences was participating in EPA’s Science Day at an elementary school in North Carolina. The teachers and students were always so happy to open their doors and let EPA scientists and community volunteers come in and share a hands-on activity with them. My favorite activities were those that really got the students involved and doing something – like measuring how much electricity various appliances used, or measuring lung capacity and learning about air quality. Seeing these activities lead to teachers asking if EPA had any resources they could use in to bring more environmental science into their classrooms. The answer is yes!

In addition to what EPA has already developed in the past, The Office of Environmental Education is working with various program offices to develop resources highlighting upcoming important issues and monthly themes.

  • October is Children’s Health Month! Check out our series of resources and activities on protecting children’s health at home and at school!
  • Students can learn how to protect their own health with activities on lead, mold, and indoor air quality.
  • All of EPA’s student and teacher resources are in one easy place! Check out the recently updated Students and Teachers page for games, factsheets, teacher resources, activities, and more!

About the author: Carly Carroll is an Environmental Education Specialist with EPA’s Office of Environmental Education in Washington, DC. Prior to joining the office in 2011, she worked as a Student Services Contractor at EPA in Research Triangle Park, assisting with environmental education and outreach.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.