Making Indoor Air Healthy

A very important pillar of good indoor air quality (IAQ) is reduction of air contaminants and avoiding the release of potentially hazardous, unnecessary chemicals into the air.

Aside from scents used in perfumes, personal care products, laundry detergents, cleaners, and scented markers, there is an increase in the use of indoor “air fresheners”, “air cleaners”, and “essential oil therapies” in schools. The expression “air freshener” suggests that these products improve air quality. The opposite is true! These devices only “mask” unpleasant odors, and the associated real problems, such as lack of proper ventilation, lack of proper cleaning, or the presence of mold and bacteria.

Although the word “fragrance” usually conjures up the idea of a pleasant scent, maybe a favorite perfume or freshly washed laundry, in reality, all scents or smells, whether pleasant or unpleasant are a complex mixture of potentially hazardous volatile organic chemicals (VOCs). VOCs, as the name implies, easily evaporate at room temperature, mix into the indoor air and are inhaled. Thousands of natural and synthetic chemicals are used in scents; some of them are proven irritants, toxins, allergens, reproductive toxins, or even carcinogens. The scents of “natural” fragrances or essential oils can be just as detrimental as the synthetic products. Let’s just remember how many people are allergic to ”natural” plants. Never mind bringing a concentrated version of plant material/oil extracts indoors.

The VOCs emitted by scented products may cause headaches, respiratory and skin irritation, asthma attacks, nausea, even long-term health damage. An even more tragic, immediate health effect was reported last month by CNN: a few people were infected with a bacteria that can be found in soil and contaminated water outside the U.S. One of the patients eventually died. The bacteria was traced back to imported lavender scented aromatherapy spray with “gemstones”, aka rocks: Mystery of exotic infectious disease traced to aromatherapy room spray https://www.cnn.com/2021/10/23/health/aromatherapy-melioidosis-mystery/index.html.

In a school environment, we must consider the wellbeing and productivity of both staff and students. EPA, CDC, and the State Department of Health advise reduction of scents in the indoor air to reduce the health risks for those with allergies, asthma, and other pre-existing conditions, and maintain good IAQ for everyone’s benefit.

This can be achieved by:

  • Choosing scent/smell free cleaning and disinfecting products
  • Instituting fragrance-free workplace policies
  • Discouraging employees from bringing in and using any items that are not approved and purchased by the school district
  • Being vigilant about our own personal care products

If a classroom or office has poor IAQ, we need to investigate the root cause of the problem, and plan for remediation as opposed to covering it up with fragrances.

Contact Elizabeth Jakab, WCT-UP Industrial Hygiene Consultant for IAQ related services.