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Breathing contaminated air poses an occupational health and safety threat

Over the past few decades, there have been many improvements in offices when it comes to indoor air quality. Remember when tobacco smoke clouds gathered over desks and cubicles in the not-too-distant past?

Thankfully, smoking in buildings has been banned and many office managers now have policies in place that cover cleaning schedules and personal care products, among other things. New construction buildings are often well insulated and maintained.

Still, energy-efficient construction doesn’t necessarily equal clean air, as millions of workers in North America have found out. Many office workers feel unwell or sick in the office, making indoor air quality a major concern that affects productivity, absenteeism and overall well-being.

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Spending a lot of time in polluted office air can be bad for your health and well-being.

In fact, the EPA says that lost productivity and medical care due to poor indoor air quality results in tens of billions of dollars lost for the economy.

What causes bad office air?

The sources for poor indoor air quality in the office are varied and manifold. They can arise in older as well as in newer office buildings, depending on construction, maintenance, history, building occupants and much more.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety says one of the most common issues in office buildings is the heating and ventilation system, especially if it is not properly maintained or insufficient for the size of the building or the number of occupants in the building.

The HVAC system may lack the power to draw in sufficient amounts of outdoor air for the right number of air exchanges, for example, allowing air contaminants to build up indoors.

Other IAQ troublemakers include:

  • Construction materials used in the building (including particle boards, glues, office furnishings, fiberglass and VOC-releasing materials such as carpets and paints)
  • An increase in the number of workers in the office building (this is often a concern with startups or rapidly growing companies)
  • An increase in indoor air contaminants due to mold, bacteria, viruses, chemicals, dusts or gases
  • Poorly regulated temperature and humidity – high humidity can cause mold growth.
  • Workplace cleaning products, pesticides, disinfectants and similar products that pollute indoor air with volatile organic compounds and toxic gases
  • Modern office equipment such as large office printers, computers and photocopiers
  • Outdoor air pollution that enters the building and is allowed to build up indoors

How does it affect workers?

As usual with indoor air quality concerns, not everyone reacts to contaminants the same way. Some office workers are really bothered by changes in smell, temperature or noise level, for example, while others don’t seem to notice.

However, if there are high levels of indoor air contaminants that affect office workers, then these workers often report one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Irritated and dry eyes, nose, throat, and skin
  • A recurring headache
  • Seemingly unfounded tiredness and fatigue
  • Shortness of breath (and higher risk of asthma attacks)
  • Hypersensitivity and allergies
  • Sinus congestion
  • Coughing and sneezing
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea

These symptoms may not be noticeable right away, but most people report them after a few hours at work. Of course, the symptoms may also be related to other health problems, but a good indicator of an indoor air quality issue is if those suffering from symptoms report feeling better when they leave the office building or when they are away for a longer period of time.

What to do if you suspect polluted air at the office

Even though office workers are protected under the occupational health and safety guidelines that apply to all employed individuals, office air quality is proving tough to regulate.

Many of the occupational exposure limits for dust or chemicals are supposed to protect workers from illness or health effects in industrial settings where they may be exposed to high levels of pollutants. These exposure limit guidelines are not suited to office settings, where exposure levels may be lower yet more long-term, and involving a variety of pollutants..

Common sense says long-term exposure to a variety of harmful air pollutants should be just as — if not more — dangerous than occasional exposure to higher levels of the same pollutant, but authorities do not have enough information on the health effects of several pollutants put together to finalize occupational guidelines for the office.

So indoor air quality concerns at the office are difficult to prove and difficult to resolve. But is it hopeless? Not at all.

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Make sure the HVAC system is checked and maintained.

If you suspect poor indoor air quality at the office, there are many things you can do to help diagnose and treat the problem.

  1. If you are experiencing symptoms yourself, keep track of them and save a record to show your safety officer, supervisor or other applicable person.
  2. Work together with the building manager and supervisors to look for possible causes
  3. Make sure the ventilation system is checked and maintained properly. Does it remove or dilute odors and contaminants with exhaust fans? Does it distribute acceptable levels of outdoor air to all workers? Is it set up to control pressure relationships between rooms (for example, bathrooms and kitchens should be maintained at negative pressure to contain any smells, while computer rooms should be maintained at positive pressure to avoid a buildup of dust)
  4. Initiate a survey to gather more information about possible sources and causes
  5. Do a walk-through in the building to pinpoint possible sources of air pollution
  6. Use your nose as an indicator. A musty smell could mean a humidity-related problem that can cause or exacerbate allergies. A chemical smell might be formaldehyde or another chemical, which can cause eye, nose and throat irritation. A solvent smell can cause allergy symptoms, dizziness and headache and is often caused by VOCs. A dusty or chalky smell (or wet cement) can cause respiratory problems, eye, nose, skin and throat irritation, coughing and sneezing and it often related to fine particle pollution and a problem with the humidification system. Noticeable body odor may be caused by overcrowding or a low ventilation rate and complaints often include headaches, tiredness and stuffiness.
  7. Get the air tested by a qualified professional with air sampling and air monitoring
  8. Make sure that everyone does their best to improve IAQ: Do not block any air vents, store food properly and dispose of garbage regularly; clean with non-toxic products; avoid perfumes and similar products; educate workers so that no one is accidentally contributing to poor IAQ.
  9. Plan renovations with IAQ in mind
  10. Report any water leaks immediately and have them fixed as soon as possible.

Poor indoor air quality can seriously affect productivity, morale and worker’s well-being.

It is important to address any IAQ issues promptly and to fix the problem.

IAQ professionals and health authorities alike remind us that indoor air quality is a shared responsibility that requires cooperation and swift action from facility managers, owners, occupants, personnel and supervisors.

Prevention is always better than treatment.

The flooring products in questions allegedly release formaldehyde, which can affect people's health and well-being.

The flooring products in questions allegedly release formaldehyde, which can affect people’s health and well-being.

Los Angeles, CA — It’s bad enough to be facing a parade of lawsuits ranging from allegations of stock price affectations to defective products. However, when Anderson Cooper and the venerable 60 Minutes comes knocking at your door, you know you’re not going to have a good day.

Such are the issues facing Lumber Liquidators, a US vendor of Chinese flooring products that are alleged to have not only failed California’s so-called CARB-2 safety standards, plaintiffs also claim levels of formaldehyde in the products exceed safe limits by serious margins.

The issue takes on greater significance given the adoption of the California Air Resource Board Phase 2 (CARB-2) emissions standard for formaldehyde in manufactured products as the US standard several years ago, which finally comes into effect nationwide later this year.

According to the report aired on 60 Minutes, glue used in the production of laminate flooring can sometimes contain formaldehyde. In low levels it’s not considered a problem, especially when the formaldehyde is encased in the product, preventing emissions from escaping into the air.

The problem with Lumber Liquidators Flooring formaldehyde, according to the allegations, is that a greater level of formaldehyde is used in the production of products for Lumber Liquidators, in an effort to keep costs down.

Such a high level of formaldehyde, according to environmental experts interviewed by CBS News for 60 Minutes, can succeed in escaping from the product into the air, making homeowners ill.

That’s the allegation carried in a Lumber Liquidators Defective Flooring Class Action Lawsuit filed by John and Tracie-Linn Tyrrell in federal court in California March 5.

According to the Richmond Times Dispatch (3/5/15), John Tyrrell began experiencing symptoms that include extreme shortness of breath, weakness, fatigue, and incessant coughing and sneezing shortly after he and his son-in-law installed the laminate flooring.

“Despite repeated medical tests, his doctors have not been able to identify the cause of these symptoms,” the lawsuit claims.

The proposed class action seeks to represent any consumer who purchased Chinese flooring products from Lumber Liquidators in the last four years. They seek re-imbursement for the material and installation, as well as unspecified damages.

The lawsuit also seeks to force Lumber Liquidators’s hand by having an injunction granted, preventing the company from selling the allegedly defective products.

“Based on lawsuits, articles and blog posts, [Lumber Liquidators] knew or should have known that its laminate wood flooring products were not compliant with [California emissions] standards,” the lawsuit said.

“Despite this knowledge, defendant failed to reformulate its flooring products so that they are compliant or to disclose to consumers that these products emit unlawful levels of formaldehyde.”

Lumber Liquidators, according to the Dispatch report, is “currently reviewing the allegations contained in this lawsuit,” the company said.

“It appears that many of the claims mimic contentions raised in a separate suit that was filed by a law firm that also represents a short-seller, which looks to benefit from decreases in our stock price, in another action against us. We believe in the safety of our products and intend to defend this suit vigorously.”

Out of 31 samples of Chinese flooring products imported by Lumber Liquidators independently tested by 60 Minutes at two certified testing labs, all but one sample presented with seriously high levels of formaldehyde that exceeded state and pending federal guidelines.

Upon dispatching reporters to the manufacturing facility in China, 60 Minutes was told the facility had the capability of manufacturing to the CARB-2 standard, but switched to cheaper manufacturing methods that utilized higher levels of formaldehyde in the wood glue for products manufactured for Lumber Liquidators.

Officials of the manufacturing facility also admitted to 60 Minutes reporters using a hidden camera that products were improperly labeled as CARB-2 compliant, or so it is alleged.

In a filing, Lumber Liquidators said “we believe that ‘60 Minutes’ used an improper test method in its reporting that is not included in California regulations and does not measure a product according to how it is actually used by consumers. We stand by every single plank of wood and laminate we sell all around the country.”

The case is John Tyrrell et al v. Lumber Liquidators Inc., Case No. 2:2015cv01615, California Central District Court.

Source: LawyersandSettlements.com

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IBM and plaintiffs settle over TCE spill suit.

IBM and plaintiffs settle over TCE spill suit.

IBM Corp. will settle a lawsuit brought by 1,000 plaintiffs who alleged that toxic spills from the company’s former Endicott manufacturing plant caused illnesses and deaths, damaged property values and hurt businesses.

Both sides announced the settlement without revealing details of the agreement.

“IBM and the plaintiffs’ counsel have reached this agreement in an effort to resolve these cases without further burdensome and expensive litigation,” said the joint statement from the litigants.

The settlement brings to a close a more-than six-year saga in which IBM and those who claim they were harmed by the toxic releases waged a fierce legal battle on monetary rewards.

Affected residents, in a multi-million-dollar liability lawsuit against IBM, claimed the company should pay for the damage caused to residents around what once was the company’s main domestic manufacturing facility.

From 1935 to the mid-1980s, IBM used TCE (trichloroethylene) to clean metal parts in degreasers at its industrial campus in the Village of Endicott. In 1979, the company discovered some of the TCE had pooled in groundwater beneath the facility and appeared to be migrating.

Soil vapor intrusion

Contamination from soil vapor intrusion was detected by the late 1990s, and by 2002, IBM began testing the air at the request of state health and environmental agencies. Basement ventilation systems were eventually installed in more than 400 homes.

Settlement negotiations between the parties began last July, when state Supreme Court Justice Ferrous D. Lebous requested that representatives of both sides start meeting about an out-of-court settlement. Negotiations were apparently successful, culminating with Tuesday night’s release that the parties agreed to a settlement that satisfied both sides.

Lawyers of those who brought the suit against IBM said they will conduct meetings with clients over the coming weeks to present terms of the settlement.

IBM representatives said the company will continue the environmental cleanup that has been ongoing since the widening toxic plume was discovered.

Pumps spread throughout Endicott pull pollution from the ground through structures called recovery wells.

Over time, these wells have grown in number from four to more than 22, and to date, they have recovered more than 815,000 pounds of trichloroethylene and other toxic chemicals, with an unknown amount remaining beneath the village.

Company officials have never publicly explained IBM’s role in the disaster, and their legal position was that the company always handled chemicals responsibly and in accordance with standards of the day. They have not denied their former operations were a primary contributor to the pollution. They have not admitted it, either, nor have they offered a detailed explanation of the source of the problem.

Cleaning up industrial solvents

Representatives of the company said it was cleaning up the solvents from multiple industries that have operated in the region’s industrial corridor for generations. Endicott was also home to the vast shoe manufacturing empire of Endicott Johnson Corp., once the region’s largest employer.

However, the toxic-liability suit named only IBM as the source of the chemicals that tainted parts of Endicott’s commercial district and nearby residences.

IBM sold the 140-acre campus to Huron Real Estate Associates in 2002. Current tenants include i3 Electronics (formerly Endicott Interconnect), BAE Systems and Binghamton University, among others.

Lawyers for IBM have long contended it was following the responsible path, picking up the sizable costs for cleaning the spill and providing venting systems for properties designated at-risk for vapor intrusion.

Both sides scored initial victories as the case wound its way through the courts. Lower courts ruled against IBM’s motion to have the case dismissed, and ruled in favor of a plaintiff’s motion to have charges of negligence — the underpinnings of the case — tried before a jury.

But lower court rulings also eliminated or limited some aspects of the litigation, including the charge that the pollution constitutes a trespass in all cases, and the claim that IBM should be held accountable for monitoring the medical condition of all plaintiffs, including non-property owners.

IBM was also able to limit claims for medical monitoring to only people claiming other damages, such as illness or property loss. That eliminated claims for a potentially large group of plaintiffs — renters and children, for example — who may have been exposed but did not develop illnesses or suffer property damage.

Source: PressConnects

Remove TCE and other gases with air cleaners

Soil vapor intrusion and other sources of chemical exposure can affect health and well-being – especially with long-term exposure.

Electrocorp offers industrial-strength air cleaners with activated carbon and HEPA plus optional UV filtration to remove dangerous pollutants from the ambient air – no matter how big the space. Activated carbon is a trusted filtration media for chemicals, gases, fumes and odors, and it can remove hundreds of chemicals, including TCE, formaldehyde and benzene.

Check out Electrocorp’s air cleaners for chemical and odor control and contact Electrocorp for a free consultation: Call 1-866-667-0297 or write to sales@electrocorp.net.

Dry cleaners often use hazardous chemicals. Photo: Simon Law.

Dry cleaners often use hazardous chemicals. Photo: Simon Law.

When Myra Vargas and her husband took over a dry-cleaning business in Jamaica Plain last spring, they had to make a tough decision: whether to use a common chemical called perchloroethylene, known as perc, or institute a costly change.

Vargas knew that perc, which they’d been using to clean clothes at their Roslindale shop for nearly two decades, was dangerous.

Years earlier, she’d been warned to stay away from it while pregnant. But she’d recently learned that perc probably causes cancer in dry-cleaning workers.

“We went seventeen years using something that was dangerous for everybody,” she says.

Extra encouragement to make the change to a safe system known as wet cleaning came from a group called Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition, but it wouldn’t be easy.

The couple would need to buy all new machinery and pay to get rid of their old, perc-based equipment. And making the switch would cost more than $100,000, a daunting hurdle. Plus, they’d heard conflicting stories about whether wet cleaning worked as well. But then the project helped them get a $15,000 state grant and launch a Kickstarter campaign that raised another $18,000.

On September 11, J&P Dry Cleaners celebrated its grand opening as the neighborhood’s only wet cleaner and one of only about a dozen in the state.

The shop’s opening was the first success in an ambitious effort to rid Jamaica Plain businesses of chemicals likely or suspected to cause cancer.

Across the nation, Main Street businesses routinely use such chemicals: at beauty and nail salons, hair straighteners and polishes that may release formaldehyde, for instance; at auto shops, brake cleaners that can include perc and solvents with trichloroethylene.

By persuading companies to switch to safer alternatives, the JP project aims to create locally what its leaders are calling “a cancer-free economy.”

Although nationally cancer rates are declining slightly, an estimated 1.7 million Americans will be diagnosed with the disease this year and more than half a million will die of it.

But most of us don’t need stats to tell us there’s a lot of cancer around — everyone seems to know someone.

“Not enough effort, not enough research, not enough funds have been directed toward upstream efforts to prevent carcinogens from getting into the human environment in the first place,” says Richard Clapp, an epidemiologist at the University of Massachusetts Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, which is partnering on the Jamaica Plain project.

“How do we get to the point where we don’t pour this fire hydrant of carcinogenic chemicals into the environment?”

To be sure, exposure to chemicals doesn’t cause all (or even most) cancers. The American Cancer Society attributes 30 percent of US cancers to cigarette smoking and 35 percent to poor diet, inactivity, and obesity.

Other factors, such as genetics and infections, also contribute. But any given cancer case is now understood to have more than one cause, Clapp argues, so the idea of dishing out blame to one factor is flawed.

The JP project, which received a $20,000 grant from UMass Lowell’s Toxics Use Reduction Institute last year and was recently awarded another, is gearing up to approach other neighborhood businesses like auto shops and beauty salons.

And it’s trying to persuade local hospitals, hotels, and senior living facilities to use Vargas’s shop for dry cleaning.

In addition to reducing carcinogens, the project aims to support minority- and immigrant-owned small businesses in JP’s gentrifying economy — communities all too often left out of environmental and health discussions.

The Lowell Center for Sustainable Production is taking an even wider-angle look at creating cancer-free economies.

In partnership with two national groups, it secured foundation support — around $1 million for each of the next three years — to build a network of organizations that will strategize how best to wean the national economy off cancer-causing chemicals, then fund a series of initiatives to help do just that.

Whether the JP project or even the national one can credibly reduce our economic dependence on carcinogens remains to be seen. But we need more of this kind of bold, creative thinking.

And if we want businesses, especially small ones, to change their ways, they are going to need help.

Fortunately, Massachusetts has other like-minded initiatives, including Boston’s Green & Clean small-business certification program and the Toxics Use Reduction Institute’s statewide assistance program.

Without the JP project’s help, Vargas says she would never have given up perc.

But she’s thrilled with the decision: There’s no chemical smell in the shop, wash loads take half the time and less energy, and the whites come out whiter. Her utility bills have dropped, and there are no more fees for disposing of perc.

“At the end, it’s worth it, because now we see the results,” she says. “People like it. It’s better.”

Vargas is planning to send other neighborhood business owners to the group and is helping spread its message of a carcinogen-free Jamaica Plain.

“It’s a big problem and a hard process . . . for them to convince people,” she says. “But I’m hoping they do it.”

Source: Boston Globe

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Longtime exposure to contaminated air can affect workers' health and well-being.

Longtime exposure to contaminated air can affect workers’ health and well-being.

Workers exposed to combustible dust and other hazards at Illinois cornstarch processing facility

PARIS, Ill. – Workers were exposed to combustible cornstarch dust, dust particles in excess of permissible exposure limits and other hazards at Septimus Inc.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited the company for 21 serious safety and health violations, carrying proposed penalties of $46,400.

A complaint prompted the inspection at the facility, which processes cornstarch for use in laundry detergent and other products.

“Combustible dust can burn rapidly and explode with little warning, putting workers at risk for severe injury and death,” said Thomas Bielema, OSHA’s area director in Peoria.

“OSHA’s inspection found that Septimus used potential ignition sources, like forklifts and electrical equipment, in areas where combustible dust was present.”

OSHA’s April 30, 2014, inspection found workers were exposed because processing and dust collection equipment lacked protective covers.

If this dust is suspended in the air in the right concentration, under certain conditions, it can become explosive.

The inspection found the company operated powered industrial vehicles in poor repair that were not rated for use in environments where combustible dust was present.

These vehicles, along with numerous electrical violations, provided potential ignition sources for the dust. The force from such an explosion can cause employee deaths, injuries and destruction of buildings.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board identified 281 combustible dust incidents between 1980 and 2005 that led to the deaths of 119 workers, 718 injuries and numerous extensively damaged industrial facilities.

Workers were also exposed to airborne concentrations of dust in excess of the permissible exposure limit, which can cause respiratory illness and lung disease. The company failed to implement administrative and engineering controls to reduce exposure limits.

Additional serious violations involved amputation hazards and included lack of machine guarding, failure to implement specific lockout/tagout procedures to prevent machinery from operating during service and maintenance, and workers exposed to fall hazards of 7 feet or greater from unguarded working platforms.

The company also failed to train workers about hazardous chemicals in use at the facility and to mark exit routes clearly and ensure they were free of obstructions.

A serious violation occurs when there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.

Septimus has a contract with Tate & Lyle to extrude, dry blend and package cornstarch. The company is owned by The Faultless Starch/Bon Ami Co. of Kansas City, Missouri.

Septimus has 15 business days from receipt of its citations and penalties to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA’s area director, or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers are responsible for providing safe and healthful workplaces for their employees.

OSHA’s role is to ensure these conditions for America’s working men and women by setting and enforcing standards, and providing training, education and assistance.

Source: OSHA

Concerned about airborne dust and chemicals at your workplace? Electrocorp has designed complete air cleaning systems with activated carbon and HEPA that can help remove airborne contaminants before they spread. Contact Electrocorp for more information and a free consultation.

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