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Breathe Easy: Indoor Air Quality In Manufacturing Facilities

By Amy Leitman

Air pollution isn't only greenhouse gases and thick smoke. It's also dust, allergens, radon, fire retardants, and formaldehyde. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, indoor levels of air pollutants are between two to five times higher (and even 100 times higher) than outdoor levels.

facility workers

For employees working in manufacturing, air pollution can be hazardous. Certain cleaning products, paints, and floor finishes may contain ammonia or volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Even fragrances used in conventional cleaning chemicals can contain toxic ingredients derived from petroleum.

Why Worry About Indoor Air Quality?

Air pollutants in your manufacturing facility can affect the health of your employees. Pollutants can take the form of gases, particulates, vapors, fumes, and biological substances.

Other common types of pollutants include:

Toxins such as pesticides, ionizing radiation, lead
Asphyxiants such as carbon monoxide
Pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, and mold
Irritants such as formaldehyde and debris
Carcinogens such as asbestos
Mutagens such as radon and PAHs (byproducts of burning fuel)

There are many common sources that cause these types of pollutants including water (through aerosolization and evaporation), improperly maintained air conditioning systems, dirty HVAC ducts, combustion appliances, chemical storage, and the local outside environment.

How Does Indoor Air Quality Impact My Employees?

According to the American Lung Association, there are two types of pollution in the U.S. that are dominant: ozone and particle pollution. These two pollutants threaten the lives and health of millions of Americans every year, especially those who work in close quarters with them.

There are eight specific health risks associated with breathing in polluted air for manufacturing workers. These risks include:

  1. Asthma attacks. Some manufacturing companies use ozone generators for odor removal and air cleaning. But ozone is a powerful lung irritant, which can reduce lung function and cause increased asthma attack. This can result in increased emergency room visits, hospital admissions, and missed work.
  2. Cardiovascular disease. Air pollution can increase the risk of both heart attack and stroke.
  3. Lung cancer. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S. and can be caused particle pollution.
  4. NTM lung disease. Nontuberculous mycobacteria (NTM) are naturally-occurring organisms that are found in soil and water. When a person inhales the organisms from their environment, it causes NTM lung infection. Without treatment, people who are susceptible to the disease develop a progressive lung infection characterized by shortness of breath, cough, fatigue, and weight loss.
  5. Shortness of breath. Both long-term and short-term exposure to air pollutants can cause wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath.
  6. Worsened COPD symptoms. Air pollution exposure can make it more difficult for those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) to breathe correctly.
  7. Susceptibility to infections. Long-term air pollution can put employees at increased risk for lung infections, especially those who are older or have a weaker immune system.
  8. Lung tissue inflammation. Air pollution can cause lung tissue to become irritated, inflamed, and swollen. For employees living with asthma, COPD, and other chronic lung diseases, these effects can be dangerous and especially harmful.

How Do I Improve My Manufacturing Facility's Air Quality?

With so many employees working in manufacturing, it's crucial that facility managers do everything in their power to promote a healthy work environment and good indoor air quality. Look for warning signs of poor air quality in your own facility.

Professional assistance is necessary in cases of mold, asbestos, and radon. While specific types of air filtration systems with HEPA filters are effective at cleaning the air of mold and asbestos and other types particles in the air, radon is a scentless, tasteless, and colorless gas that can be helped by several ways including, increasing the indoor ground level ventilation (adding vents/unblocking existing vents), or in the case the facility has a suspended floor, you could increase the sub floor ventilation. Bottom line; professional air quality tests and mitigation are necessary in keeping a healthy work environment.

Amy Leitman is the Director of Policy & Advocacy at NTM Info & Research. A native of Montreal, Canada, Amy grew up in Toronto before moving to Miami, Florida to pursue her undergraduate studies and law degree at the University of Miami. She has more than 17 years’ experience in both the private and nonprofit sectors.

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