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Bay Area Research Finds Lack Of Fresh Air Makes Workers Sick

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) — It’s a stunning statistic: Americans spend 70 to 90 percent of their life indoors. For millions of workers, most of that time is spent at the office. So what does that mean for your health?

Millions of office workers suffer from building-related symptoms. 41 percent report at least one symptom that is related to their building and 20 percent report at least 3 symptoms.

Mark Mendell with the California Department of Public Health said even though most symptoms are minor such as headaches, coughs and sniffles, other symptoms can be more serious. “They could range from asthma allergic responses, respiratory infections,” he said.

What’s causing it all? “There are hundreds if not thousands of chemicals in offices,” Mendell said.

At the Department of Public Health’s lab in Richmond, they are analyzing materials such as particle board and fiberboard used in furniture to identify those chemicals.

“The one that is most well understood is formaldehyde,” said Mendell. “Its known to cause irritation at levels commonly found indoors.”

Compounding it all is a lack of fresh air. Most office windows don’t open, so workers are at the mercy of the building’s ventilation system. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates 50 percent of office buildings don’t provide enough outside air.

Just increasing ventilation rates would have a huge impact, according to a new report out of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “We will reduce health symptoms, we will increase our work performance and in addition we’ll have some reductions in absence,” said William Fisk with the lab.

Fisk authored the study and said the economy would benefit too. “By increasing the ventilation rate in U.S. office buildings that have below average rates to a practical value, we project that we would save $10-$20 billion annually in the U.S. at an annual implementation cost of 2-10ths of a billion.”

One building that is doing it right: the new Department of Education Office in Sacramento. “This is truly a trendsetter for the state,” said Jim Ogden. He’s the consultant that helped design it, and took CBS 5 on a tour.

The experience starts at the front door, where people coming in pass over a special grate that cleans the dirt from off the bottom of your feet.

But the big thing is the unique ventilation system. Air comes in from the floor instead of from the ceiling and there’s a vent in each cubicle. “So that allows each person to adjust the amount of air that they are getting in their workspace, so you get that individual control,” said Ogden.

Most of the air is actually coming from the outside. Air coming through giant windows is filtered through massive filters that take out all the toxins, making sure that the people downstairs are breathing the cleanest air possible.

Workers such as Stephanie Papas love it. “The old building had a sort of musty feeling, but it’s never felt that way here,” she said. Since she moved into the building five years ago, Papas said she has been sick a lot less. “I think it’s important for management to be aware of the fact that they have a strong part in providing a work environment that is healthy,” she said.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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  • Jeff Zucker

    So that is opposed to going outside and breathing in cigarette smoke?

    Especially relevant after the December 2010 Surgeon’s General Report stated that there is no sale level of second hand smoke. Every exposure to the cancer-causing chemicals in secondhand smoke could damage DNA in a way that leads to cancer. The 2010 report describes how chemicals from tobacco smoke quickly damage blood vessels and can trigger asthma attacks, stroke and other health issues. there is no risk-free level of exposure to someone else’s drifting smoke, declares the report. Secondhand smoke can act on the arteries so quickly that even a brief pass through someone else’s smoke can endanger people at high risk of heart disease.

    Exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke causes immediate damage to the body that can lead to serious illness or death, according to the 2010 report released recently by U.S. Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin.

    “According to this new report, when inhaling secondhand cigarette smoke, individuals breathe in more than 7,000 chemicals, hundreds of which are hazardous and known to cause cancer,” said State Health Officer Dr. Mary Currier. “Exposure to secondhand smoke increases blood clotting and an individual’s risk of heart attack.”

    And it is next to impossible to walk a few blocks outside your office without breathing in several breathes of cigarette smoke, particularly when entering and exiting the work environment. You are SAFER to stay inside!

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