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Office of the Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment



Indicator: Indoor Air Quality

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Summary

There are few data available on indoor air quality in Canberra buildings. Occasional monitoring within a selected number of public and private buildings would be desirable to give some idea of the range of pollutants present in Canberra buildings and their concentrations.

What the results tell us about the ACT

Most people in the ACT live in suburban or small urban areas, and spend a large part of their time inside buildings. Hence, the quality of the air indoors is of great importance for health, wellbeing and efficiency in the workplace and at home.

Everyone breathes indoor air

There are very few data available on indoor air quality in general, and this lack of information is especially acute in the ACT. It is certain, though, that indoor air quality is affected by several factors:

  • pollutant sources, such as tobacco smoke; building materials; unflued office equipment, such as photocopiers and laser printers; furnishings; unflued heaters; gas cookers; biological products like mould; house dust mites; and pollens
  • design of the building, including ventilation and the degree of sealing around windows and doors
  • rate of exchange with outdoor air
  • building occupants and their behaviour
  • humidity and temperature.

It is not known what proportion of ACT residences and commercial premises suffer poor indoor air quality because of a combination of these factors.

Our continuing ignorance of indoor air quality is a problem. Small-scale monitoring – not a detailed scientific study – of a few selected buildings would be useful to give some idea of potential issues. This proactive approach would allow further investigation and, if necessary, early intervention. Such an approach is cheaper and more socially palatable than waiting for a serious problem to appear, as occurred when asbestos was used in home insulation.

At work

A small proportion of occupational health and safety complaints might be expected to relate to indoor air quality, but we cannot be sure. Poor indoor air quality may not be readily apparent, and may instead manifest as symptoms such as headaches, sore eyes, breathlessness, tiredness or difficulty concentrating. There are many other causes of these symptoms, so ascribing them to poor indoor air quality in the absence of any hard data about the composition of the air would be incorrect.

Many commercial operations release compounds to indoor and ambient air. These can range from benzene at a petrol station to ozone from some types of office electrical equipment. Occupational health and safety legislation usually covers pollutants in these settings.

At home

Information from studies in other parts of Australia1 shows an extraordinary range of potential indoor air pollutants. Some of the more worrying are chemicals inevitably released from the materials used to construct and fit a new house. Indoor air quality is therefore usually worse in new houses. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that new houses are usually made to be more energy efficient. This is achieved in part by reducing air movement into and out of the building. This worthy aim is a significant cause of indoor air pollution.

Conversely, old housesmay suffer from other problems related to indoor air quality. Deep-seated mould may release spores; old carpets, furniture and mattresses may harbour dust mites. However, the dust mite problem is less severe in the ACT than in coastal Australia because of the drier climate.

Other factors in both new and old homes, such as treatment of a house for pests, or use of cleaning solvents and paints, may also introduce a range of air pollutants.

Tobacco smoke a major factor

Smoking continues to be a major source of indoor air pollution in many private homes. In most public buildings, and enclosed public spaces, smoking is now banned. In many licensed premises serving the public, smoking is permitted only in designated smoking areas. Other areas are set aside as ‘smoke-free’.

A recent paper released by the ACT Health Protection Service, concluded that tobacco smoke was present in more than 80% of these ‘smokefree’ areas and even in adjacent non-smoking premises.

Data sources and references

Some examples of studies undertaken are Environment Australia's State of Knowledge report on indoor air quality is at < http://www.ea.gov.au/atmosphere/airtoxics/sok/index.html >.

Other published reports, including two studies of woodheater emissions, are at < http://www.ea.gov.au/atmosphere/airtoxics/publications.html >. Last accessed 18 March 2004.

Towards smoke-free enclosed public places in the ACT: reforming the smoke-free Areas (Enclosed Public Places) Ac t 1994.

ACT Health (Health Protection Service) May 2003, ACT Government, Canberra.

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