We have all seen the headlines: bacterial outbreaks, chemical contamination, mold lurking behind walls. They are attention-getters that play upon our fear of the unknown and how it may harm us. This is the realm of environmental health, the study, and management of human health impacts arising from physical, chemical, and biological agents in our workplaces and communities. It is a field that continues to grow as we develop new technologies, learn more about the causes of diseases, and create greater access to information.
Property owners and managers often find themselves at ground zero of these issues, as it hosts the interaction of people with the built environment. This interaction can bring significant liabilities to property owners and managers, however it also presents opportunity to those who can capture and promote the value of a healthful environment. The outcome depends upon how well these issues are understood, how hazards are prevented, how problems are mitigated, and how public interest is harnessed to provide an enhanced occupant experience.
Understanding the Agents
Any number of environmental health concerns may arise in a building. Routine workplace health and safety programs help to control many of them. However some agents present additional challenges due to greater public interest, a higher potential to impact occupants or the lack of a regulatory framework around which to develop management programs. In these instances it is critical to have a thorough understanding of the dynamics involved to develop appropriate prevention measures and response protocols. A brief discussion of some common problematic agents is presented below.
Asbestos has a history common to many hazardous agents in the environment: materials are used before we fully understand the health hazards. A naturally occurring mineral fiber, asbestos has been used extensively in construction due to its stability and fire resistance. It is frequently found in vinyl flooring and mastics, pipe insulation, fireproofing, acoustics sprays, and tiles and patching compounds. Although most asbestos-containing materials were banned between 1973 and 1978, there are still many types of roofing mastics and adhesives that were not banned for consumer use. It is important to note that the EPA does not track the manufacture, processing or distribution in commerce of asbestos containing materials. The primary health concern presented by asbestos is the inhalation of fibers leading to fibrosis and cancer in the lungs. Fortunately, as long as asbestos-containing materials are not disturbed and are maintained in good condition, they present little hazard to building occupants.
A well-developed regulatory framework exists to guide the development of asbestos management programs. The primary focus is on identifying the locations of asbestos- containing materials, monitoring their condition and ensuring they are not improperly disturbed. This frequently means controlled removal prior to demolition or remodeling activities. The costs of such activities can be significant, and as such they are frequently factored into compliance with the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) FIN 47 rule governing the disclosure of future environmental liabilities.
Mold and Moisture
To underscore the impact of information on environmental health dynamics, a Google search for “toxic mold” turns up 732 million hits in 0.64 seconds. The fact is mold has been part of our environment since the human race first emerged, and as such we are accustomed to exposure at typical background levels. However, problems can arise when people are exposed to atypical levels or develop an elevated sensitivity. The most commonly recognized health effect resulting from mold exposure is hay fever-like allergic reactions in sensitive individuals. Infections are rare, limited mostly to immune-compromised persons. The allegations of a broad range of toxic-type health effects have largely not been supported by medical research.
Contrary to asbestos, mold has a limited regulatory framework, but can present significant legal liabilities. Guidelines from various public health entities agree that mold growth in buildings should be removed following appropriate precautions, ranging from simple housekeeping to full-scale remediation. The greater the amount of visible mold present, the greater the precautions taken. Mold growth may occur in buildings when organic building materials (e.g., drywall paper) are wet for more than 24 hours. As such, prevention focuses primarily on keeping moisture away from organic building materials and drying building materials out within 24 – 48 hours.
The Legionella bacteria is a natural inhabitant of water and is found throughout the environment. It grows well in warm, still waters and is frequently associated with biofilms. When people inhale mists from contaminated water sources (e.g., cooling towers, fountains, showers, etc.), they may develop Legionnaires’ disease, Pontiac Fever, or extrapulmonary Legionellosis. This most commonly occurs in the elderly or in people with predisposing illness, such as respiratory diseases. Symptoms can be severe and debilitating, and the disease is frequently fatal.
Doctors must report diagnosed cases of Legionnaires’ disease to their local health departments. This data is reviewed for purposes of identifying potential sources. The most common experience encountered by clients is a call from the local health department, whom may impose various requirements upon the property at their discretion. Frequently this will lead to evaluation of the water systems and treatment if elevated levels are found. In some instances the facility may be closed or posted with notifications. Treatment can result in significant business disruption as water systems must be taken out of often for 24 hours or more.
The standard of care landscape has evolved greatly in recent years. Multiple prevention strategies may be employed to control Legionella growth in building water systems, including but not limited to implementation of a water management plan, which might include continuous disinfection, periodic cleaning of plumbing systems, maintaining appropriate water temperatures, and ensuring adequate circulation in water systems.
Placing Science in Context
Environmental health issues have a strong component of science, but they also have a broad, interdisciplinary scope of influence, creating liabilities on several fronts. There may be inspections and regulatory requirements from federal, state and local agencies (e.g., OSHA, EPA, S.E.C., health departments). Occupants may pursue litigation and employees may file worker’ compensation claims. There may be avenues of recovery through insurance policies or legal action against other involved parties. Labor unions may have an interest, along with local media outlets. With this complex backdrop of issues, it is critical that response actions be carefully considered and planned. Determining the optimal resolution pathway can be assisted by considering four primary factors, which are discussed below.
Occupant Exposure and Experience
Occupants are the wildcard in the equation when it comes to evaluating environmental health risks. In many instances, we have limited means of controlling or even understanding who is occupying the environment. How sensitive are they to the agent at play? How much concern will they have over environmental conditions? How will they respond when an issue arises? Will they report to the media? Seek legal remedy? As such, worst-case assumptions are typically used when formulating response actions. Even when exposures can be controlled, we must consider how control and mitigation measures may impact occupant perceptions and experience. Will they generate noise and vibration? How will dusts and odors be minimized? How will the process be perceived? These factors can dramatically change the way a problem is dealt with and the degree precautions that are taken.
Relative to members of the general public, factors related to employee exposure are more predictable. We have a greater understanding of sensitive individuals and can work with them to find solutions. We frequently have regulatory guidance regarding acceptable exposure limits. We understand how they interface with the environment and can train, educate and communicate with them. We can more readily assess risks from worker’s compensation claims. The nature of employee exposure is also different from the general public, in that employees are in the environment every day of the year. This also means employees can notice changes in the environment over time, a factor which may lead them to raise issues others might not. This is a great asset, as it helps to identify problems up front and get better information for formulating solutions. It is often the case that many environmental issues can be traced back to early employee detection or involvement. Likewise, virtually any response to an environmental health issue at a property will involve risk communication with employees, as there is typically a high degree of awareness and communication regarding activities at the property.
Condition of the Asset
Many environmental health issues are closely related to the overall condition of the property and ongoing maintenance activities. A history of water leaks indicates the potential for hidden mold growth, just as the appearance of mold growth may indicate an unknown water intrusion problem causing physical damage to the property. Legionella bacteria in a water system can be controlled with proper design and maintenance, while design flaws and improper maintenance may lead to amplification. Remodeling activities may uncover a hidden mold issue, while actions to repair a mold issue may advance the timetable for remodeling. As such, understanding the condition of the asset helps to understand the scope of environmental health liabilities, and actions to prevent environmental health problems are frequently related to improving the overall condition of the building.
The emergence of an environmental health risk can bring significant risks of business disruption, ranging from taking isolated areas out of service for cleaning, to closing the facility to manage a Norovirus outbreak. Responses to environmental health issues consume employee time and financial resources. Negative media attention can drive away business. These risks underscore the need for well-planned prevention and response. Proper communication with employees and the media can minimize negative publicity. Well-designed mitigation measures can minimize the down-time of assets and ensure that processes do not harm the customer experience. On the contrary, a rushed response may not be effective or may further spread contamination, resulting in more lengthy and costly remedial actions.
Value Enhancement and Sustainability
With increasing public concerns regarding climate change, there has been an increased awareness as to the long-term environmental implications of our actions. The resulting “green” movement has gained momentum within institutions and the broader marketplace as companies see the long-term economic benefits of environmentally sustainable business practices.
While much of the attention has focused on energy conservation and natural resource protection, there is a growing component related to public health. This is exemplified, for example, in the Fitwel building rating system, which aims to support human health by encouraging building spaces that promote clean air and drinking water, encourage physical activity, provide views of nature and daylight, and foster a culture of healthy habits; all measures which are backed by peer-reviewed scientific studies on improving human health.
The challenge facing building owners is to incorporate these same concepts into operational models to create value. Can investments in healthful indoor environmental quality through the use of low-VOC products create a more desirable environment for customers and employees? Will they show preference to a property that promotes its actions to maintain a healthful environment?
Managing the Madness
The myriad of complexities, as well as a continually evolving landscape of issues, underscores the need for an environmental health risk management or “healthy building” program that is both interdisciplinary and scalable. An effective program blends several components, including systems for:
- Identifying the agents of concern and issues to be managed;
- Determining the critical control measures that should be taken to minimize risks;
- Verifying that control measures are being effectively implemented; and
- Validating that they are effective in addressing the agents and issues of concern.
- Ensuring a contingency plan is in place to respond to issues that escalate.
The good news is that most environmental health problems can be prevented through management. When incidents do arise, properly planned and executed responses significantly reduce the potential impact upon people and assets. Within each crisis lies opportunity.
To get help from our team of environmental experts: Call FACS at (888) 711-9998.