We spend more than 90% of our time indoors, and the quality of the air we breathe at our desks may affect our health and productivity. Issues can range from feeling a bit foggy in a stuffy office to coming down with “sick building syndrome”, a set of symptoms attributable to a particular building that may include headaches, nausea or a sore throat. Problems can often be traced to volatile organic compounds (VOCs), emitted by things like furniture, paint, cleaning products, clothes and building fittings, that can accumulate in spaces that are not properly ventilated.
Are green building codes the answer? The number of buildings certified by various bodies as green has skyrocketed in recent years. Some of these codes award points for practices that could help, like using low-VOC paints and fixtures. But there’s also reason to be sceptical, since energy efficiency measures since the 1970s, like sealing windows, have probably worsened air quality.
Still, a very small number of studies that carefully measure air quality in green and non-green buildings of similar specifications, or in lab settings that simulate them, suggest the approach has promise, if certain criteria are met. It’s a field whose importance to our everyday lives, at home and at work, is gradually coming to the fore.