Beginning in the late 1990s, sensational media headlines on toxic mold created an unprecedented public awareness of indoor air quality. Now, public concern is moving beyond mold to a wide range of other indoor air contaminants, creating new challenges and potential liabilities for property owners.

Long the province of office properties, indoor air quality is fast becoming a residential concern and a major legal and public policy issue for residential property owners. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ranked indoor air pollution among the top five environmental risks. The EPA also says that because people spend up to 90% of their time indoors, indoor air pollution may pose a greater threat to health than outside pollution.

Defining Pollutants

New concerns over indoor air quality involve the numerous household products that release potentially dangerous gasses, or particles, into the air. The most common are tobacco smoke, pesticides, carbon monoxide and the volatile organic compounds that release gasses and are used in paints, cleaning products and even cosmetics. Health problems believed to be linked to indoor pollutants include asthma, headaches and dizziness, as well as eye, nose and throat irritation.

As with mold, the science surrounding indoor air pollutants is still evolving. Because individuals can react differently to indoor air pollutants, depending on their sensitivity and the duration of the exposure, there are generally no standards indicating when most indoor air pollutants are dangerous enough to merit action by a property owner. A notable exception is radon, for which the EPA has established permissible exposure levels.

Further complicating the matter is that indoor air is invariably influenced by outside pollution sources, such as automobile and industrial emissions, pollen counts and ozone levels. It also is influenced by everything from cooking to routine cleaning to “off-gassing” from rugs, furnishings and wall coverings.

Several building-specific factors also influence indoor air quality. They include the materials used in construction, how the property's HVAC system is maintained and operated, the building's ventilation, air flow rates, and design. And, as with mold, the actions and behaviors of a building's residents can make a difference.

Managing the Problem

While only a few states currently regulate indoor air quality, many others have proposed legislation. To help owners protect themselves from this emerging issue, the National Multi Housing Council and National Apartment Association have published a members-only white paper titled “Beyond Mold: Managing Indoor Air Quality.”

For each major indoor pollutant, the document reviews existing federal and state legislation as well as litigation and insurance trends. The white paper (available at www.nmhc.org) also recommends specific steps owners can take. For instance, it suggests apartment firms consider adopting a “no-smoking” policy and provides a list of practical considerations involved in going smoke free.

To guard against carbon monoxide leaks, owners should inspect gas appliances and be sure to have central heating systems inspected and cleaned annually by a trained professional. Residents also should be educated about the dangers of idling their cars in attached garages.

When it comes to pesticides, owners should ensure maintenance personnel are trained to properly mix, use, store and dispose of these products. Be sure that products are only used in well-ventilated areas and, when possible, schedule pesticide applications for periods when residents are off the property. Only apply pesticides in targeted locations, with minimum treatment of exposed surfaces and keep track of all pesticides and other chemicals used. Similar precautions are urged for products that include paint strippers, adhesive removers, and aerosol spray paints.

No single federal agency directly addresses indoor air quality, and existing regulations cover only indoor air quality on a piecemeal basis. For instance, the EPA indirectly regulates indoor air quality through the Clean Air Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Because there is no consistent regulatory approach to the regulation of indoor air quality, property owners need to educate themselves to avoid future problems and potential litigation.

Alex Hecht is a legislative analyst for the Washington, D.C.-based National Multi Housing Council and its joint legislative partner, the National Apartment Association.

Eileen Lee is NMHC/NAA's vice president of environment.