Indoor Air Quality

Maintaining Good Indoor Air Quality

Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) is generally good in well-maintained buildings with well-maintained heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems. Occupants can play a key role in maintaining good air quality as follows: 

  • Is your issue more of an odor concern?  If so, see Odor Concerns.
  • Keep building materials dry: Many building materials can support mold growth when they are wet for extended periods. Therefore, keeping things dry is of utmost importance for maintaining good indoor air quality. Occupants are in the best position to recognize new water leaks and notify maintenance and housekeeping to take corrective action.
  • Keep windows closed: Outdoor air carries pollen, mold spores, and humidity, any of which may cause problems indoors. Air that is brought in via the building HVAC system is filtered and conditioned, removing allergens and excess moisture. Leaving windows open may cause allergic-type symptoms in sensitive individuals, and may lead to condensation (and later mold growth) when humid outdoor air comes in contact with cool indoor surfaces.
  • Do not block air vents: The building’s HVAC system was designed to provide and remove air from each part of the building. Blocking the vents can compromise this design. If needed, maintenance can place a deflector over the grille to redirect the air so that it doesn’t blow directly on building occupants.
  • Remove visible mold: If you notice mold growing on building materials, call maintenance to have the mold removed.

Indoor Air Quality Concerns

The first steps to take if you have Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Concerns:

  • Contact maintenance to repair leaks. If needed, maintenance can also replace damaged ceiling tiles or drywall that has been wet for too long and bring fans to help speed drying.
  • Contact housekeeping if a large area of carpet is wet. They can extract water from the carpet and bring fans to help speed drying.
  • Use paper towels or other absorbent to clean up small spills.

If you notice mold growing on building materials, contact maintenance to have the mold removed.
If you are experiencing an ongoing indoor air quality concern, please review the following common symptoms that may be associated with indoor air and steps that may be taken to alleviate the concerns:

  • Dry, itchy eyes: During cold weather, the heated air indoors can be very dry, sometimes making our eyes feel dry or itchy. Some of the buildings at Duke have humidification systems that can be adjusted by maintenance to improve user comfort, but most do not. Local humidification systems are discouraged because, if not maintained well, these can distribute microorganisms into room air, causing more severe health issues than the low humidity. For more information on humidifiers, see the EPA’s webpage on use and care of home humidifiers.
  • Allergic-type symptoms (sneezing, watery eyes): There are many potential causes of allergic-type symptoms, most of which are not related to indoor air. However, if a building is excessively humid or if water leaks into the building, mold may grow on building materials or in the heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning system, subsequently causing symptoms for sensitive individuals. If building occupants experience allergic-type symptoms:
    • If occupants’ symptoms are related to being at work, employees are encouraged to fill out a Report of Occupational Injury/Illness and may make an appointment at Employee Occupational Health and Wellness at 919-684-3136.
    • If you notice mold growing on building materials, call maintenance to have the mold removed.
    • If employees are leaving windows open in the area, make them aware that pollen and mold spores will enter the building through open windows and may cause symptoms for sensitive individuals. Ask employees to leave windows closed.
    • If occupants are experiencing allergic-type symptoms but there are no signs of visible mold and windows are not being left open, contact maintenance and ask that an HVAC mechanic check your HVAC unit. Keep a record of the name of the HVAC mechanic who checks the system.

If maintenance is not able to resolve indoor air quality concerns, you may request that Occupational Hygiene and Safety perform an Indoor Air Quality Investigation by following the instructions below.

Request an OESO Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Investigation

Review the Indoor Air Quality self-help info above.

You may request that Occupational Hygiene and Safety perform an Indoor Air Quality Investigation AFTER requesting that maintenance check the ventilation or plumbing systems as appropriate.

You can request an OESO investigation by creating an Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Work Order. The response to the IAQ request form will be as follows:

  • Within 2 business days, someone will contact you to set up an appointment for an initial assessment.
  • The initial assessment will include:
    • A conversation with the maintenance employee who responded to your concern,
    • A visual inspection of the area, and
    • Measurements of common indoor air quality parameters.
  • If this assessment indicates a potential problem, additional sampling may be performed and necessary corrective actions will be recommended to maintenance (or other appropriate group).
  • Findings and recommendations (if any) will be communicated to the Work Order requestor and his/her supervisor or manager.

Odor Concerns

If there is sudden-onset irritation that affects a number of people, or an odor that you believe represents an IMMEDIATE health or safety threat, call OESO at 919-684-2794. 

If you notice an unusual odor in the work area, we recommend the following actions:

  • If you smell natural gas, call 911. Additional guidance for Gas Leaks can be found on the Duke Emergency Management website.
  • If the odor is present only in a single room, it is most likely caused by something in that room, such as rotten food or something in the trash. Look around in the room to see if you can determine the cause. Dry sink traps are notorious for producing sulfur-like odors. If you have a sink or floor drain that is not frequently used, pour some water into it to fill up the trap and block odors from the sewer line.
  • If the odor is a localized odor that seems sulfur-like but you cannot find a dry trap (see previous bullet), call maintenance and ask to have a plumber check for a hidden drain or uncapped pipe.
  • For more widespread odors, look around your work area for any out-of-the-ordinary activities, such as painting, construction, housekeeping or grounds-keeping work. If the odor appears to be related to these activities, occupants’ concerns about the odor may be alleviated just by knowing what is causing the odor. If you are not able to determine the cause of the odor yourself, contact maintenance. They may know of activities that could be causing the odor, or they can check your HVAC system to see if the odor source may be near the air intake. The general maintenance/zone mechanic or HVAC mechanic may be helpful in identifying the source of the odor and how it is getting into the building. The HVAC mechanic may be able to adjust the system to flush out the odor or limit the impact of an odor that is coming in from outdoors.
  • Diesel odors are usually transient and due to diesel-fueled equipment in use or trucks idling near air intakes, allowing the odors to come inside through the HVAC system. In this case, ask the drivers/operators to move away from the air intakes or turn off the diesel-powered engine.
  • Duke Medicine facilities are tobacco-free environments and Duke University workplaces are smoke-free environments. Smoking related odors are not considered safety issues.  Please refer to the administrative policies that apply to your entity for more information.
  • For recurring odors with no apparent source, keep a record of the days and times that you notice the odor. This may help you identify a pattern and thereby recognize the cause of the odor.
    ​Things employees can do to prevent unpleasant odors:
    • Do NOT store perishable food in desks or on shelves. Store perishables in a refrigerator.
    • Periodically clean out refrigerators so that items do not remain long past their expiration date.
    • Dispose of garbage in appropriate trash receptacles in a timely manner. If your trash receptacles are not being emptied regularly, notify appropriate housekeeping staff.
    • Monitor the microwave when popping popcorn to avoid burning the popcorn if left unattended.
    • Avoid use of deodorizers and air fresheners. Many complaints of unpleasant odors result from the deodorizer/fragrance used by a well-meaning employee trying to mask another unpleasant odor. Even worse than the odor, these products can cause irritation.

For more information about chemicals and odors related to indoor air quality, see the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s page on the topic.

If none of the above are applicable, you may request an OESO Odor Investigation.