Sick Building, Sick Business: How Indoor Air Quality Affects the Financial Health of Your Business

The year is 1983. Microsoft releases Word, McDonald’s introduces the McNugget and Tom Cruise’s popularity rises with Risky Business. It was also the year that the World Health Organization first uses the term “sick building syndrome” to describe the adverse health effects on people due to poor indoor air quality.

Decades later, Word, the McNugget, and Tom Cruise are all still with us. As are sick buildings. A sick building can spread outbreaks of upper respiratory infections (e.g. canine influenza), along with dizziness, asthma and allergies related to poor indoor air quality. Any of these can lead to temporary closures and long–term damage to your (and your business’s) reputation, as well as negatively impact staff health and performance. The potential health effects caused by the air in your business can ultimately impact the financial health of your business.

How Do Buildings Get Sick?

Historically, the 1973 oil embargo and consequent energy crisis led to an effort by builders and regulatory agencies to make buildings air tight and more energy efficient. Making buildings “tighter” meant reducing the amount of outdoor air provided for ventilation. Bitter cold and brutal heat were managed, and pleasant indoor temperatures maintained—all thanks to heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.

However, tighter buildings also meant that the occupants breathed the same air, day in and day out. Just consider the quality of that air. This led to what was described by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as, “Indoor Air Facts No. 4: Sick Building Syndrome”:

“Most indoor air pollution comes from sources inside the building. For example, adhesives, carpeting, upholstery, manufactured wood products, copy machines, pesticides and cleaning agents may emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including formaldehyde. Environmental tobacco smoke contributes high levels of VOCs, other toxic compounds and respirable particulate matter. Research shows that some VOCs can cause chronic and acute health effects at high concentrations, and some are known carcinogens. Low to moderate levels of multiple VOCs may also produce acute reactions.”

The EPA also points to chemical contaminants from outdoor sources, such as motor vehicle exhausts, biological contaminants such as bacteria, molds, pollen and viruses as contributing factors to sick buildings—and potentially sick occupants.

What Does This Mean for Your Veterinary Hospital?

Translating the EPA’s description to veterinary medicine, here are a few common biologic contaminant examples: A dog infected with canine influenza coughs, a cat infected with feline calicivirus sneezes and both shed dander.

Chemical contaminant examples could include: VOC emission from your freshly painted reception area and “fragranced” surface cleaners.

In veterinary hospitals, airborne contaminants may be heavy enough to eventually fall to the surface but most (including the aerosolized droplet nuclei from infected animals) will remain in the air and move throughout your building on air currents. These are generated by your HVAC system as it works to keep your business warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Simply put, your building’s HVAC is the “lungs” of your business, recirculating that same air, breathing in and breathing out…and potentially leading to sick business syndrome in your own hospital.

How Sick Buildings Can Impact the Financial Health of a Business

The negative, if not potentially catastrophic, impact to an animal care business that suffers from an infectious disease outbreak among animals is obvious. Temporary closures of the clinic or business for the cleaning of a room, area or building equal a financial hit. However, the potential for long-term damage to your or your business’s reputation can be even more devastating.

What may be less obvious when it comes to the indoor air quality is the negative effect on staff performance. This can be due to simple decision–making impairment (e.g. headaches) or high rates of absenteeism thanks to the spread of colds or flu.

Published March 21, 2017 for Harvard Business Review, author and researcher Joseph G. Allen tackles the impact of unhealthy building air on the decision–making performance of office employees, in his article “Research: Stale Office Air Is Making You Less Productive”.

Allen notes that, “While sick building syndrome is decades old, its associated set of symptoms such as eye irritation, headaches, coughing and chest tightness is still an issue today.” He continues to say, “Study after study has shown that the amount of ventilation, or fresh outdoor air brought inside, is a critical determinant of health. Good ventilation has been shown to reduce sick building syndrome symptoms, cut absenteeism and even reduce infectious disease transmission.”

For his own study, Allen measured workers’ decision-making by altering air quality conditions of a highly controlled work environment from a conventional environment, which merely met minimally acceptable standards, to an optimized one. The levels of VOCs in the space were changed by controlling the number of common materials that emit these chemicals–e.g., surface cleaners, dry erase markers, dry cleaned clothing and building materials.

The workers’ decision–making performances were evaluated using a standardized cognitive function test that researchers have used for decades. The results? Breathing better air led to better decision–making performance and higher test scores. Further, the biggest improvements were in areas that tested how workers used information to make strategic decisions and how they plan, stay prepared and strategize during crises.

Without even addressing the specifics of other potential health benefits, such as reduced sick building syndrome and absenteeism as a reason for improving indoor air quality, Allen concludes, based on his study that, “Ultimately, managers would be wise to routinely incorporate health impacts into all of their cost–benefit calculations. When health is accounted for, the costs for enhancing the indoor environment can be properly weighed against the health and productivity benefits. For example, an executive will clearly see that an enhanced facilities budget will reduce human resource costs. This makes buildings, in essence, a human resource tool.”

Maintaining Optimal Indoor Air Quality in Your Business

While most of us would prefer to throw open the windows and rely solely on fresh air, increasingly record–topping hot and cold temperatures make HVAC systems a necessity for operating an animal care business. As the lungs of your building and, ultimately your business, your HVAC system must be cared for to reduce the spread of disease, improve cognitive function and decrease absenteeism. Here are a few ways to improve your air quality and reduce sick building syndrome:

1. Improve the Functionality of Your HVAC System with Regular Maintenance

  • Change the filters. For most buildings, HVAC filters should be changed at least every three months, but animal care can be an entirely different animal. Depending on how dirty or plugged the filters get, filters should be changed as often as every two weeks and certainly at least once a month. Be sure to check your HVAC manual to see what kind of filter you need to buy and recommendations for filter change.
  • Clean the coils. An integral part of your HVAC system are evaporator coils that absorb heat from the indoor air as it is blows over them. These coils become dirty as dust and dander settle on them along with “biofilm”, a build–up of microorganisms that creates an impenetrable layer over the coils.

Not only do dirty coils prevent the HVAC system from working efficiently by demanding increased electricity to function and decreasing air flow, but they can also create breeding grounds for bacteria. Cleaning the coils should be part of your regular routine. Again, be sure to consult your HVAC manual for more information specific to your system, but be aware of this important caveat: if you wait too long to clean your coils, not only will the biofilm be more difficult to remove, but aggressive cleaning to try to do so can result in damage to coils.

2. Utilizing Ultraviolet Germicidal Irradiation (UVGI) to Improve Air Quality, Enhance HVAC Performance & Reduce Maintenance Time

Ultraviolet Germicidal Irradiation (UVGI) offers an opportunity to dramatically improve the air quality of your business to prevent the spread of disease, reduce VOCs and other contaminants and keep your HVAC system working efficiently. UVGI has been used for 100 years to disinfect, sanitize and control infection in hospitals and other highly sensitive environments where maintaining sanitary air circulation, as well as surface areas, are critical.

Briefly, UVGI works as a mutagen to bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms on a cellular level, penetrating the cell wall. This disrupts the microorganism’s DNA, breaking the carbon bond which causes the death of the cell and/or renders it helpless. Additionally, the right UVGI unit used in conjunction with photocatalytic oxidation can reduce VOCs and foul smells by breaking down the odors into carbon dioxide (CO2) and H2O.

Portable and upper air UVGI products can target specific areas of your business, but UVGI can also be integrated with your HVAC system to disinfect the air throughout your business. The UVGI unit, when placed in your HVAC system, works as the indoor air passes through it, killing pathogens and breaking down VOCs. Further, UVGI placed by HVAC coils automatically cleans the coils, eliminating the need for, and cost of, regular coil cleaning maintenance and the use of harsh cleaning chemicals, all while increasing efficiency. The right amount of UVGI, along with correct installation of UVGI for HVAC systems, can provide both coil cleaning efficiency as well as air sanitization.

Healthy Building, Healthy Business

The impact of sick buildings has been recognized and studied for decades, and the evidence continues to mount. Unhealthy air can have a wide range of negative impacts on a business, from infectious disease outbreaks to staff absenteeism and cognitive impairment, all of which can impact your financial bottom line. Maintaining healthy indoor air quality by taking care of your HVAC system and considering the use of UVGI will help keep the rest of your business healthy as well. +