Construction of a new Science Building, Vassar College Campus, New York, 2013 © Daniel FriedmanIndoor Air Quality During Construction

  • CONSTRUCTION IAQ IEQ - CONTENTS: indoor environmental hazards associated with building construction, renovation, repair, & list of references to IEQ standards & procedures
  • POST a QUESTION or READ FAQs about indoor environmental hazards associated with building construction, renovation, repair

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IAQ and IEQ during construction & renovation or building cleaning operations:

This article describes the common indoor environmental issues for occupied buildings during construction, renovation, or remodeling and for occupied buildings adjacent to and impacted by such construction projects. We provide references to authoritative information sources giving advice on management of indoor air quality and the indoor environment for construction environments.

Our page top photograph illustrates a large construction project underway on the Vassar College campus in Poughkeepsie, New York in 2013. A new sciences building is under construction on a job site placing major building activity adjacent to an occupied academic building.

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Managing IAQ and IEQ during construction projects

Construction of a new building adjacent to an existing one may raise IAQ and IEQ questions for the exisiting building's occupants (C) Daniel Friedman

Writing in a recent issue of The Synergist, a publication of the American Industrial Hygiene Association, Weekes, Baker and Springston (2004) describe the range of indoor environmental contaminants that may affect the quality of the indoor environment during construction, including airborne particles, VOCs, and in some cases biological contaminants such as mold spores.

[Click to enlarge any image]

Any of these can result in IAQ complaints by building occupants ranging from skin irritation to respiratory or other health complaints and potentially respiratory distress, particularly for people at extra risk such as asthmatics.

What are the Common Indoor Environment or IAQ Hazards Arising During Construction?

IAQ problem source illustration, U.S. EPA

After citing a number of useful resources (listed below), those authors quoted maximum concentration levels cited in LEEDv4 from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).

That list expands upon the particulate irritants described above to include potentially troublesome contaminants such as carbon monoxide (CO), Formaldehyde, VOCs, Ozone, as well.

The USGBC document describes both recommended maximum concentrations of these contaminants and the test methods used to evaluate their levels in a building.

Illustration at left: NIOSH illustration of sealing penetrations to improve building IAQ. Note that this is one example of multiple coordinated steps that should be taken in concert.

NIOSH in the IEQ article cited below, simplifies the indoor environment concerns arising during construction to three categories:

  1. Biological materials, particularly bacteria, mold, or other microbes that may be present due to leaks, prior sewage spills, or the presence of birds (bird droppings) or rodents, to which I'd add insects and insect allergens (cockroaches or high levels of dust mite fecals).
  2. Particluates such as dusts and fibers (drywall, plaster, concerete, soil, wood, masonry, flooring, roofing, ductwork) and notes that dust may involve irritants (such as fiberglass) and toxic particles such as asbestos or PCBs.
  3. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are found in a wide variety of building products, coatings, and sealants such as adhesives, caulks, cleaners, paints, and in building materials such as carpeting, flooring, and some fabrics, and fuels and their related combustion products.

What are the Common Indoor Hazard Control Measures Used During Construction?

Construction project next to occupied building (C) Daniel Friedman

To address these potential hazards during a construction project the job managers are invited to prepare and follow an Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) management plan that specifies various control measures such as

As steel construction continues atop the concrete foundation and walls of this new building underway adjacent to an occupied building (background in my photo), processes include grinding, cutting, and welding operations that may add to airborne particulates.

Where do the SNAFUs Occur during Indoor Environmental Quality Management During Construction or Remediation?

Mold containment falling down (C) Daniel Friedman

I suspect that whether we are monitoring indoor building conditions during construction or before, during and after an asbestos or mold remediation project, among these measures, failures in IEQ management and monitoring usually occur in these areas:

Mold and yeast in dense contamination on drywall in a home(C) Daniel Friedman

Mold growth on a pool table (C) Daniel Friedman Mold contamination on pool table under-side(C) Daniel Friedman

Turning a fan on or off, opening or closing a window, or running the ventilation system produce huge differences in the degree to which particulates are airborne. But some less obvious variations in test conditions can still produce several orders of magnitude difference in the detection of indoor contaminants. I have conducted in parallel and in-series tests of airborne particle detection methods to explore these variations.

Air test for mold, particle trace variation (C) Daniel Friedman

Some examples of air test result variation sources & effects include

Image at left: four air samples of airborne particulates in the same location lay down four very different particle traces, illustrating, even to the naked eye, that very different particle levels may be detected depending only on disturbances during the sampling interval.

Yet almost no field practitioner documents these conditions or variables during testing.

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A result of the failure to understand these very large impacts on building environmental testing is that there is a great deal of confusion between accuracy of test results and the precision with which the results are stated. A mold test lab report may indicate that there were 3478 Aspergillus sp. spores per M3 of air in a test space - a misleadingly precise number - while my tests of particulate variability have indicated that the accurate number can actually range between about 300 spores /M3 and 3,000,000 spores /M3!

Mold spores under the microscope collected from house dust  (C) Daniel Friedman

Low mold counts & False Negatives:

On occasion, particularly when a mold test was conducted in an area a bit distant from a problematic mold reservoir in a building a very low mold count may mask a significant mold contamination problem. The photo at left shows about 20 Aspergillus sp. spores - the only ones present in this sample.

Reporting an indoor count of 20 Pen/Asp spores per M3 of air in a test space would lead most experts to opine that there is no mold contamination problem in the building, claiming that the low mold spore count may be consistent with spore levels in outdoor air - a view that can have merit.

But my interpretation of this image is different. The occurrence of these spores in chains and in a cluster suggests that there is or was a nearby active-growth Aspergillus sp. mold colony. Aspergillus sp. spore chains are quite fragile and break apart quickly in air.

Finding these particular mold spores still bonded in a chain means that there was a reservoir nearby - these spores didn't come in through the window.

In my view this means that there is a significant chance of a false-negative conclusion when screening the indoor environment for airborne particulates and possibly for chemicals as VOCs as well. (See ACCURACY vs PRECISION of MEASUREMENTS).

Importance of effective building inspection & occupant interviews for contaminant sources

In effect, too often either the indoor contaminant test was itself inadequate as a building screen for a hidden problem, or even if the test found indications of an actionable problem, the consultant and test failed to give useful information about what action is needed, failing to answer questions such as Where is the problem source? and What caused it? and How much cleaning is needed?

A strategy of thorough visual inspection, taking of the building's leak history, occupant complaints, and an understanding of building construction, where leaks or moisture traps occur, and what materials are most conducive to problematic mold growth, insect infestation, or probable prior use of chemicals such as pesticides can help find these less obvious indoor contaminant sources before as well as during a construction project so that appropriate containment or other measures can be established.

Useful References for Building Indoor Air Quality and Indoor Environmental Quality During Construction

Weekes et als, (2014) suggested some of these construction IAQ IEQ resources while others are cited from the U.S. EPA IAQ Design Tools for Schools web page.


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