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How's the air in there?

We all know the risks associated with air pollution, such as high smog concentrations putting us more at risk for developing asthma. But what about the air inside our homes? According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, indoor air can be much more polluted than outdoor air, even in highly industrialized areas. This is a big deal for Canadians, who spend more than 80 per cent of our time inside.

What's worse, the people who spend most of their time indoors -- young children, the sick or elderly -- are often most susceptible to the effects of poor air quality. It's not just a matter of comfort, either -- contaminants can cause a host of problems including respiratory ailments, skin rashes, headaches, nausea, dizziness, fatigue and poor concentration.

If you think your home might be making you or your family sick, read on to find out how an air quality assessment can help.

What is poor air quality?
Stuffy air, rooms with lingering odours, walls with mould or mildew, or air that is too dry or humid are all symptoms of a poor air quality issue. Pollutants can be biological or chemical and can come from dozens of sources -- old damp carpets, new building materials, furniture made with particle board or cleaning products containing harsh irritants.

The problem is actually made worse by improved building techniques. As homes become more energy-efficient, they also become more airtight. Without sufficient mechanical ventilation to ensure good indoor-outdoor air exchange, indoor air becomes trapped. So while your hydro bill goes down, your home's air pollution levels go up.

Poor air quality might be an issue in your home if you have a recurring illness or symptoms that can't otherwise be explained, if you feel better outside of the home, if you have severe allergies or asthma or if you've had a roof leak or basement flood.

The three basic ways to improve air quality are to reduce or eliminate pollutants at the source, improve ventilation and clean the air with filtration. But sometimes it's not easy to determine what or where the problem is.

How can an air quality investigation help?
A good investigation starts with a questionnaire that asks occupants about the history of the house, their lifestyle habits and the nature of the complaint. An inspector conducts a complete visual inspection of the home, looking for problems such as insufficient attic ventilation, inefficient furnace filtration, water damage, or mould and improper air exchange. A written report provides a complete list of findings and suggestions for fixing the problems.
Assessments can differ depending upon whether inspectors use instrumentation. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. trains inspectors to conduct visual inspections only and in most cases, recommends testing only for carbon monoxide and radon.

"Inspectors use all their powers of observation and their knowledge to figure out where the building has failed, what are the causes and how can they be corrected," says Virginia Solares, senior researcher at the CMHC.

While Jimi Arey, of Arey Environmental Inc., a Toronto-based CMHC-approved inspector, admits to using instrumentation occasionally, he says testing isn't necessary in 99 percent of homes. "You need an investigator who can understand how buildings function. Not only areas of the home but the entire unit," he says. "Measuring the contaminant and telling me if it is safe or not safe isn't the issue. What I want to know is: Do I have a source of contamination in the house and what can I do about it?"

The problem with testing, he argues, is that it can be inconclusive. Air tests are prone to error because of misuse or equipment malfunctions. The results are subject to interpretation and are valid only at the time of sampling (for example, your home's humidity levels might change by season, weather and even time of day). What's more, tests don't identify the source of a problem and some individuals are sensitive to contaminant levels that are below test limits.

But not everyone agrees a visual inspection is enough to evaluate the problem. "The building science approach is valid to a point, but you still have to use instrumentation," says Frank Haverkate, owner of Frank Haverkate and Associates Inc., an environmental testing and consulting company in Toronto. "A visual inspection will tell you some of the information, but it's not going to tell you if the property is exchanging air properly, if there are dust levels in the air, what the chemical levels, sewer gas levels or humidity levels are."  He adds, "it certainly doesn't tell you anything about mould issues that aren't obvious and in my experience, most mould issues aren't obvious."

Besides an extensive visual inspection, Haverkate uses several pieces of sophisticated equipment such as chemical monitors, gas detectors and particle counters. For mould inspections, he uses a thermal imaging camera that checks for water in walls and ceilings and he takes air samples from a variety of areas in the home to check mould spore concentrations.

While Arey's inspection will cost you between $500 and $600, Haverkate charges closer to $700 for an air assessment. A mould investigation brings the total fee up to $1,300 ($95 per laboratory sample).

So how does a homeowner decide? You have to weigh the pros and cons of each approach. "Testing costs money," says Solares. "That money could be used for the correction of the problem instead of spending it to find out facts that are not very meaningful."

Haverkate disagrees. "Testing will tell you where to spend your money," he says. "A HEPA air filter is great if you have dust issues but if you don't, there's $1,500 spent on something you don't need."

Testing becomes even more important when you're dealing with mould issues, he says. "If you just deal with the visible mould and don't specify a clean-up protocol for airborne mould spores, the house still has mould," he says. "It can still cause health issues and can actually cause re-growth in other areas."

Fixing the problem
Check the Yellow Pages under "indoor air quality consultants," contact the CMHC for a list of building science inspectors in your area or talk to your municipal health department, local asthma association or lung association for referrals. Choosing between inspection techniques comes down to your comfort level and budget. But before agreeing to any inspection, do your homework: Ask about credentials, check references and get a written estimate for the fees.

For more information on improving your problem, read's article "How to improve your home's air quality."

Fiona Wagner is a writer based in Georgetown, Ont.

-- Posted: Feb. 5, 2007
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