BOC Spotlight: Indoor Air Quality Expert Sharon Bessa

doctor checking a child's heartbeat with stethescope

As the effort to improve building efficiency continues, the effects these changes have on indoor air quality can easily be forgotten. Tighter buildings mean less energy wasted on space heating but can also result in decreased fresh airflow throughout the building, a necessary component to keeping the indoor environment safe.

Research has shown that energy efficiency can improve community health, but what issues should building occupants be aware of when it comes to their homes and workplaces?

We sat down with indoor air quality expert and longtime Building Operator Certification (BOC) instructor Sharon Bessa to talk about the intersection of health and efficiency. Sharon is a registered nurse and certified industrial hygienist with over 30 years experience in conducting indoor air quality investigations. Her industrial hygiene background enables her to evaluate air quality, while her nursing education and experience provides the expertise needed to identify occupant symptoms.

MEEA: How does someone know if there’s an air quality issue in their home or office, and what do you recommend they do?

Sharon: Concerns about air quality are usually triggered by unidentified odors or health symptoms in the occupants. The most common symptoms are upper respiratory, including sinus congestion, sneezing and coughing. Occupants typically report that they have these symptoms when they are in the building and that they disappear when they leave the building. My recommendations would depend on the information I gain in the initial interview about the odor or the occupant complaints. About once a year I get a call with occupants reporting headaches and nausea, this requires an immediate response since these are classic symptoms of carbon monoxide. I recommend a carbon monoxide monitor with a digital readout in parts per million (ppm). Some of the units will alarm at 25 ppm because some occupants may begin to have symptoms at that concentration.

Would your recommendation change based on if they’re a building owner or a tenant?

Typically, I work with building owners or property managers, and I ask tenants to work with them. I do not work directly with tenants since I always need information on the air handling equipment and this is usually arranged with the building owner or property manager.

What types of allergens or pollutants do people need to be aware of?

Mold is the most common allergen that I find in buildings. If the issue is not mold, everything else can be more complicated and takes some detective work to identify. It’s not unusual to find that the pollutant or allergen cannot be identified since occupant symptoms can be caused by so many things. I often recommend that occupants see an allergist to get testing done to identify specific allergens.

How does the evolution to tighter and more efficient buildings affect indoor air quality?

Tight buildings were a huge issue about 20 years ago. Today, with the use of low volatile organic compounds (VOC) or no-formaldehyde products, coupled with awareness on the need for fresh air flushing prior to building occupancy, problems with off-gassing from building materials has been minimized. A bigger issue now is the use, typically by occupants, of room deodorizers and essential oils. These products contain chemicals that can lead to allergy symptoms in building occupants. I typically see more issues in older buildings, not new construction. A large number of these issues are related to water intrusion from roofs or broken pipes, often leading to mold problems.

When making changes to a building to improve efficiency, such as HVAC adjustments or envelope improvements, sometimes indoor air quality effects are forgotten. What do you recommend doing before or after implementing large improvements?

I recommend getting a baseline of current conditions before making any improvements, particularly monitoring carbon dioxide. This air monitoring would then be repeated after project completion to ensure there have been no impacts to the indoor air quality. Communication with the building occupants is also important to head off rumors or concerns that air quality will suffer when adjustments are made.

What trends do you see related to green cleaning and how does this affect overall indoor environmental quality?

In the past 20 years I have seen a tremendous reduction in the number of products used for cleaning. Whenever I do an air quality survey, I request a list and, if needed, safety data sheets on all cleaning products. Twenty years ago, I would get a list of over 20 products, now I get a list of four or five. I am still wary of products that claim to be “green” since there is no widely used definition or standard for what that means. Many of these products are not necessarily better for indoor air quality or for concerns about exposure for housekeeping personnel who use them on a daily basis. I think one of the most important factors for air quality is the use of fragrance-free products.

Why did you decide to become a BOC instructor?

I was invited to do the training and was very pleased to see there was an entire day devoted to indoor air quality! I have been instructing the indoor air quality class for over 10 years, and I always find it very enjoyable. The class attendees are experts in their own jobs, and I always learn something new from them every time I teach a class.

Interested in learning more about indoor air quality? Find a Building Operator Certification training course near you.