Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) has recently come to the fore in international policymaking. While outdoor air pollution continues to be a top priority for governments around the world, in the past decade many nations have awoken to the potential health effects of air contaminants indoors, where people spend most of their time. In developed countries people spend roughly 90% of their daily lives indoors, highlighting need for IAQ standards with regards to mold and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), two of the biggest contributors to indoor air pollution.
Mold and VOCs can be found in the households of countries both wealthy and poor. Mold varieties like Penicillium chrysogenum and Stachybotrys chartarum, and VOCs such as formaldehyde, benzene, and radon, can cause a number of adverse health effects. Prolonged exposure could lead to respiratory problems like asthma and pulmonary hemorrhaging. The World Health Organization’s 2002 World Health Report indicated that poor indoor air quality is responsible for approximately 2.7% of the worldwide disease burden.
A number of countries have enacted policies to protect their citizens from the health effects of indoor air pollution from mold and VOCs. This article will discuss examples mold, mildew, and VOC standards for different nations across the globe.
Mold Standards in North America and the UK
In the United States and Canada, basic health and safety laws can protect tenants and workers from the harmful health effects of mold. For instance, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety’s “general duty clause” states that employers are required to provide their workers with a safe and healthy working environment. This includes exposure to excessive amounts of mold and mildew. The same kinds of general habitability laws apply in the United States, in both workplaces and rental residential buildings. Specific states, cities, and counties enact a hodgepodge of their own mold regulations.
Mold, or mould in the UK, is considered a health hazard, and is the responsibility of the landlord or the employer to remediate. Local inspectors can determine the habitability of a rental unit with a mould infestation. According to Jane Kennedy, a Member of Parliament on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee, “employers have a statutory duty to identify workplace risks from all biological agents (including moulds) and to put control measures in place to manage those risks under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 and Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH).”
Regulation of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in European and Asian Countries
The European Union has attempted to standardize their construction material industry with a set of product codes used across the continent. Construction products must contain a standard warning label that informs consumers about the indoor air quality risks contained in the material. The EU sought to harmonize the labels on building materials, since one of the clear goals of the Union was to make international trade more efficient across national borders. However, the EU stopped short of regulating the actual indoor air quality standards for its member nations. It is up to each individual state to determine their indoor air standards.
For instance, in Germany the AgBB (Ausschuss zur gesundheitlichen Bewertung von Bauprodukten), or Committee for Health-related Evaluation of Building Products, determined a set of standards for building products that strictly reduced the allowable levels of VOCs. The German restrictions, implemented in 2010, do not apply to previously-installed building materials. The German strategy for VOCs produced from building materials appears to be aimed at the manufacture of the products, not the actual IAQ of the buildings.
In France, on the other hand, regulation of VOCs addresses not only the actual building materials, but also the health criteria of indoor environments. In 2006, of the OQIA, or French Observatory for Indoor Air Quality (Observatoire de la Qualité de l’Air Intérieur), in association with the French Agency for Environmental and Occupational Health Safety and the French Scientific and Technical Centre for Building, proposed indoor air quality guideline values for over 50 substances deemed to be highly toxic in indoor environments.
Japan has long been a frontrunner in the development of guideline values for indoor air quality. Beginning as early as 1980 the Japanese government set strict guides for acceptable levels of emissions from plywood and fiberboard. Between 1996 and 2003 Japan instituted regulations on formaldehyde in residential buildings. The percentage of Japanese homes with unacceptable levels of formaldehyde dropped from 25% to 5.6% during that time period. Whereas many countries in the world suggest standards and set guidelines, Japan’s IAQ laws come with actual enforcement measures to regulate their IAQ requirements.
Indoor Air Quality – A Global Problem
Unfortunately, developing nations do not share the same concern for mold and VOCs in indoor environments, at least as far as their policies and laws are concerned. Air quality continues to pose considerable health problems for third-world countries, although data on the exact impact of poor IAQ is not readily available. According to the World Health Organization, people living in third-world countries are particularly susceptible to IAQ problems in the form of smoke from open-fire stoves inside poorly ventilated dwellings.
Developed countries in the East and the West have recently put together advisory task forces, investigative committees, and reporting agencies in order to address IAQ problems. However, in most of the world the actual enforcement of IAQ standards still lags far behind in public awareness and governmental legislation. As with many public health regulations, IAQ laws will grow teeth slowly but surely.
Until that time, concerned homeowners, tenants, and workers should investigate the local laws concerning mold and VOCs, as there is no worldwide standard for allowable indoor air pollution levels. If you are experiencing health symptoms related to mold or VOCs, or you suspect that there is a problem with the indoor air quality of your home or place of work, do not hesitate to contact an indoor environmental service professional. Only trained, certified IAQ specialists will have the necessary equipment to safely and effectively solve problems with indoor air contamination. Air cleaners, air purifiers, and air filters may help in the short run, but will not address the underlying causes of VOCs and mold.