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In posh office buildings, plenty of bad air days
By Jiao Xiaoyang (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-02-21 06:02

If you are a business owner or office manager in one of those new steel-and-glass towers on the Bund in Shanghai or the Central Business District in Beijing and notice an increase in sick days or a lack of concentration among your staff, don't just blame their laziness.

The fact is, in China or any other country with many new buildings, the competitiveness of business operations is being eroded by indoor air pollution.

The smell and chemical elements emitted from construction materials that are only half-dry or new furniture and office equipment may cause serious problems. At worst, staff can die, or they can subject an employer to unexpected liabilities.

One prime example is Vivien Cui, a 25-year-old professional working with an international company in Beijing's Central Business District. Shortly after she started work two years ago, she developed a rash on her face. During the next year, the symptoms became worse as the rash covered her whole face.

After consulting an American dermatologist, Cui learnt that her problem was a result of poisonous elements in the office air, a condition doctors call "bad office air syndrome."

Only then did it dawn on her why some of her colleagues had also grumbled about headaches, others were easily susceptible to flu or colds, and several had eye problems such as conjunctivitis.

"I was close to desperate at that time; you know, for a woman my age, a 'face problem' is a big deal," said Cui, requesting that her company and the building not be named as she still works there.

Cui is certainly not alone in suffering bad office air, which is a major factor in the health of present-day society. Although there are no national statistics about how bad indoor air quality in offices is, existing data and cases indicate a grave picture.

The China National Interior Decoration Association (CNIDA) sampled the air in several high-grade office buildings in Beijing last year, and it turned out 81 per cent of the locations exceeded the safety levels for ammonia, 50 per cent for ozone and 42 per cent for formaldehyde all hazardous elements known to cause illnesses such as Legionnaires' disease, asthma, hypersensitivity pneumonitis and humidifier fever.

In Shenzhen, Guangdong Province - the richest city in South China - the municipal centre for disease prevention and control did a similar test last year and found more than 90 per cent of the offices had excessive air pollutants.

The local environment monitoring station in Wuhan, capital of Central China's Hubei Province, tested 572 new and remodelled offices in the past four years. The result was that 89.8 per cent of them were overloaded with air pollutants, with some offices having 18 times more ammonia than the established maximum.

"If you scan every office building against the official indoor air quality standard, you can rarely find one that is fully qualified," said Song Guangsheng, director of CNIDA's Indoor Environment Test Centre.

Sources of pollution, according to Song, include construction and decoration materials, furniture, electronic apparatuses and poor ventilation.

Decoration materials, such as paint and floors, are known to release pollutants that contain formaldehyde or benzene; therefore, more and more office occupants choose to use "green materials" with a pollutant emission significantly lower than the acknowledged dangerous level. But having everything "green" in the office does not guarantee safe indoor air quality.

"By 'green,' it means that the pollutant release of any given material is within the safety scope prescribed by the authorities, but there are often so many materials used in one office room. The amount of pollutants can still add up to be hazardous," Song said.

A common practice used by many companies today is to divide a large room into dozens of small cubicles. But the material - usually with compound boards - used in the dividers can release a daunting amount of pollutants, Song said.

And the senior executives in their offices are no safer, he said, because the furniture in their heavily decorated rooms might be denser, not to mention the leather sofas and carpets that often generate volatile organic compounds.

"And the electronic devices," Song added. "Things such as computer screens and Xerox machines gather dust and generate ozone."

In a sense, the polluting environment in offices is unavoidable. A good ventilation system can help, or staff can suffer much more if it's bad.

"Sadly, the ventilation systems in many offices are not as good as the building's exterior," said Zhang Qi, an indoor environmental expert with the China Association for Science and Technology.

For all the dazzling glass walls in buildings where some offices operate, there are no windows to open, Zhang said, and their central air conditioner-based ventilation systems cannot provide adequate ventilation with outdoor air.

Worse, some air conditioning pipes may become a hotbed of dirt and bacteria because of insufficient ventilation and lack of cleaning, he said.

Many building owners seem to be unaware or are purposely silent on the indoor air quality issue. According to Song of CNIDA, most of those who requested testing were office tenants or individual employees, and few building managers have taken the initiative to address this problem.

That is the part that bothers Cui most. "The property management is very lazy," she said. "The doctor said I should keep the window open because only fresh air can help relieve the syndrome, while the property management kept saying, 'It is too windy today, not suitable for opening the window' or 'it is too dusty today; it will make the office dirty.'

"They just resorted to all kinds of excuses not to open the window, and they are the only ones who have the key to the window. In level-A office buildings, staff working here are not allowed to open windows ourselves."

China Daily approached the property management of several level-A buildings in downtown Beijing, but they all declined to comment.

Disputes over office air quality are on the rise in recent years. In some cases, employees have sued their bosses for provided an unhealthful work environment; in other cases, building management and furniture makers have been sued for using unhealthful decorations and furniture materials.

The Beijing Consumers' Association alone received 594 complaints regarding indoor air quality in the first half of 2005, a 10 per cent increase year-on-year.

A latest lawsuit over office air pollution is under way in Xiamen, Fujian Province. A woman working with a local apparatus company sued the company and three other firms providing interior decoration and furniture, claiming that the lung disease she contracted was the result of excessive formaldehyde in the office air.

At the end of November, the district court in Xiamen ordered the four companies to pay the woman a total of 240,000 yuan (US$30,000) in compensation.

Health effects from indoor air pollutants may be experienced soon after exposure or years later, according to Gao Jian, director of the International Department of the China-Japan Friendship Hospital in Beijing.

Immediate effects may show up after a single exposure or repeated exposures. They include irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, headaches, dizziness and fatigue. Symptoms of some diseases, including asthma, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, and humidifier fever, may also show up soon after exposure to some indoor air pollutants, Gao said.

Immediate effects are usually short-term and treatable. Sometimes the answer is simply moving the person away from the source of the pollution if it can be identified, he said.

Other solutions to indoor air problems include better ventilation, using purifying devices and materials, and houseplants, which can improve the oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange and humidity and make working indoors more tolerable, Gao added.

Cui's suffering ended with the purchase of two air purifiers for about 7,000 yuan (US$875), and more plants were placed in the company's 150-square-metre office. The result: Her face is clear again.

"It feels much better now as we finally got a solution," she said. "If we can't change the world, we change the niche."

(China Daily 02/21/2006 page1)

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