Ever gotten complaints from building occupants that they felt better before they arrived at work and again after they left? And it wasn't because they disliked the job but because the building was making them sick?

There's a name for it — it's called sick building syndrome. In this condition, building occupants complain of symptoms such as sensory irritation of the eyes, nose and throat; neuro-toxic or general health problems; skin irritation; nonspecific hypersensitivity reactions; and odor and taste sensations.

These symptoms are often pinned to flaws in the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems. Other factors include contaminants produced by the off gassing of building materials, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), molds, byproducts of office machinery, light industrial chemicals and more.

While the long-term affects of exposure remains an emerging science, there is much custodial workers can do to reduce their exposure, and that of others, by improving indoor air quality (IAQ).

There are three primary means of exposure: Inhalation, ingestion and skin contact. When custodial managers consider all three routes, they expand their thinking to all factors that might impact IAQ.

"Many times people think indoor air quality is only about chemicals and VOCs. But when you think of it more broadly in terms of what people can inhale, ingest or touch, it's also particles, dust and other contaminants," says Steve Ashkin, president of The Ashkin Group, Bloomington, Ind. "There are three basic things people have to be worried about: Chemicals, VOCs and dust particles, especially the really small ones which are tiny enough to inhale deeply into the lungs."

Stop It At The Source

According to Allen Rathey, president of The Healthy Facilities Institute (HFI), Boise, Idaho, there are three main ways to improve IAQ:

(1) Stopping contamination at the source,

(2) Better ventilation, and

(3) Cleaning the air itself.

The best approach, he says, is to stop contamination at the source. He likens airborne contamination to an oil spill. Once oil gets into the environment, it quickly dissipates and spreads.

"It's better to stop an oil spill before it starts, and it's the same with air contamination," he says. "By the time you get to step two or three, you're at the tail end of contamination."

Stopping contaminants at the source requires a solid understanding of what the sources of contamination are. For example, consider the contaminants walked in on a person's shoes. These particles include dust generated by industrial facilities, pesticides and more, which is present in soil and on city streets and sidewalks.

"If you keep that dust from coming into the building, you stop one source of contaminants," says Rathey.

How might this be accomplished? By washing sidewalks and parking lots near building entrances, then putting large walk-off mats inside and outside every doorway. This matting must allow a sufficient number of steps to occur in order to ensure dust falls off shoes and onto the mats.

"We can keep a lot of nasties out of the air just by making sure our cleaning program has a sidewalk maintenance component and great entrance matting," Rathey stresses.

Suck It Up

Next is to make sure equipment actually removes, rather than redistributes dust and other contaminants.

Vacuum cleaners deserve primary consideration, says Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) President Werner Braun.

"There are vacuums out there that blow stuff back into the air because their housing is poorly designed," he explains.

CRI simplifies vacuum selection through its Seal of Approval Program. This program rates vacuums on soil removal, dust containment and safety to carpet surfaces.

"The Seal of Approval is the only quantifiable testing program for vacuums in the world," says Bethany Richmond, CRI communications manager. "We test vacuum cleaners to see if they work, are low emitting and don't destroy the carpet."

When targeting IAQ concerns, Braun recommends cleaning operations choose vacuums with CRI Seal of Approval Gold certification. This certification ensures a vacuum removes and holds particles as small as 35 micrograms.

And that's a good thing, says Ashkin, who points out that it's the fine particles (smaller than 0.3 microns) that humans inhale deeply into their lungs.

"If you select a vacuum that has been evaluated in this way, you know that you are keeping the dust you pick up inside the vacuum," Rathey says. "You need a vacuum that's going to remove more and release less."

Ian Grieg, CEO of Daniels Associates, in Phoenix, also recommends walk-behind vacuums or walk-behind sweepers for hard surfaces, as well as carpets.

"Other countries have been vacuuming their hard-surface floors since the 1980s," he says. "We still don't vacuum hard-surface floors and that's one of the largest causes of poor IAQ because dust mops just throw particles into the air."

But if this equipment — be it high-quality walk-behind, upright or backpack vacuums — is improperly maintained, it can contribute to IAQ concerns rather than address them. Vacuums use airflow to suck up particles but if clogged filters and nearly full bags reduce airflow, then fewer particles are picked up.

"The beater brush is no longer driving dust into the vacuum as much as it is pushing it into the air," Rathey adds.

Grieg says proper vacuum maintenance is a common problem across the custodial industry. Cleaners need to be taught to use high-filtration bags and change them regularly, he says.

"The rule of thumb is to empty bags when they are half full, but manufacturers may recommend changing them when they are half, two-thirds or three-quarters full," Ashkin says. "It's never when they are so full they cannot hold anymore."

A comprehensive carpet care program also improves indoor air quality. Carpets should be vacuumed daily and shampooed one to four times a year, says Grieg.

When shampooing the carpet, make sure carpets dry out within 24 hours to keep mold issues at bay.

"Mold and other organic materials require moisture to grow," Ashkin explains.

Wipe It Up

When dusting with cloths or mops, it's best to go the microfiber route.

"Cleaning operations need microfiber wipes for all dusting, damp wiping and damp mopping," says Grieg.

But heed this warning: Not all microfiber is created equal, Ashkin advises. No standards exist to ensure microfiber products meet exacting specifications. Cleaning operations need high-quality microfiber products that capture fine particles as opposed to cheap ones that do little more than flick dust into the air.

"Look at the product's weight," says Ashkin. "There is a correlation between the weight of the cloth and the quality."

And pick the right microfiber for the job. Differing microfiber blends exist and some do a better job with specific tasks than others.

"The product will vary whether they are doing dry dusting or wet cleaning," Ashkin says. "They need to use the right microfiber for the application."

Chemical Selection

Using the wrong cleaning chemicals also can adversely impact air quality. It's important for cleaning operations to carefully weigh their chemical options and select environmentally preferable products, Ashkin says.

"We should make an effort to minimize the VOCs in our cleaning products; we should not be contributing to the problem," he adds.

Go with fragrance-free products and weigh disinfectant choices carefully, advises Rathey.

"These products use petrochemicals and they are very suspect in contributing to IAQ problems," he says. "Quats, for example, have been associated with asthma."

Sanitizers and disinfectants also contribute to healthier environments so they do have their place in cleaning, but their harmful affects can be mitigated by how they are used. For example, an aerosol disinfectant adds chemical to the air, but a squeeze bottle solution, where cleaners squeeze a stream directly onto a cloth, can alleviate this problem. Apply these products with a microfiber cloth or mop and IAQ improves again because custodians use less chemistry to clean.

"Microfiber allows the use of less corrosive chemistries because it physically removes contaminants," says Grieg.

Training And Teamwork

"Training is the key to improving IAQ," adds Ashkin.

Cleaners need to be taught to select the right product and equipment for the job and to use it correctly. At Daniels Associates, every spec includes a task number, the name of the task, the types of chemicals and equipment needed to perform the task and the results to be expected.

"Cleaners need to be taught how to use chemicals and how to use equipment; equipment is a lot more technical than it used to be," Grieg emphasizes. "In the old days the equipment custodians used on the job were the same tools they used to clean at home. It's different now."

Teaming with facility managers to ensure heating and cooling systems work with cleaning operations, rather than against them, also improves IAQ.

"Why aren't cleaning folks talking with the people who take care of the heating and cooling systems?" Rathey asks. "If we're going to have a seat at the table of healthy indoor environments, we have to understand what's going on in the buildings regarding air flow and heating and cooling systems."

Ronnie Garrett is a freelance writer based in Fort Atkinson, Wis.