Occasionally, we are called to collect mold samples in a home or building because of odors or discomfort felt by the occupants. Once the laboratory results come back showing normal levels of mold spores, we must turn our attention to other culprits.
There are two main categories of indoor air pollutants:
- Biological Contaminants:
Mold, bacteria, pollen, and viruses. Certain molds produce microbial volatile compounds (MVOC) and some of these are known to be toxic. Mold gives off a musty odor, while bacteria gives off an odor similar to rotten eggs.
- Chemical Contaminants:
Adhesives, carpeting, upholstery, manufactured wood products, copy machines, pesticides, and cleaning agents may emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including formaldehyde. These additives are typically used as preservatives. The smell varies according to the chemicals. We must add that tobacco smoke can also contribute to high levels of VOCs.
The Environmental Protection Agency states that
certain VOC’s are carcinogens.
It warns that low to moderate levels of multiple VOCs may produce acute reactions
and some can cause chronic and acute health effects at high concentrations.
In 1989, the EPA submitted a report to Congress in which more than 900 organic chemicals were identified in newly constructed buildings. The report warned that some chemicals were in amounts one hundred times the norm. Today, the EPA states that “… contaminant concentration levels rarely exceed existing standards and guidelines even when occupants continue to report health complaints.” Considering the large number of VOCs found in buildings, collecting air samples of volatile compounds may or may not identify possible causes of the occupants’ discomfort.
The chemical contaminants outlined above can be a problem in new homes. VOCs found in carpet and cabinetry, such as kitchen cabinets, will off-gas overtime. Understandably, some occupants experiencing headaches and nausea may not be willing to wait. And some people may be even more susceptible to VOCs than others.
Indoor air pollutants can be distressing to occupants. When buying a new home and selecting carpets and cabinetry, we strongly advise looking at the reputation of the manufacturers and finding out what VOCs are present and their levels.
We should also mention Chinese drywall imported during 2003-2006 which has been known to release sulfur-containing odorous components. The odor resembles rotten eggs that can be very unpleasant for the occupants; also, the compounds corrode copper-based electrical wires, and more.