Unlikely Sources of Pollution

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Unlikely Sources of Pollution
Unlikely Sources of Pollution

The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of earth, rivers, sea … this pollution is for the most part irrecoverable.

Rachel Carson

We won’t have a society if we destroy the environment.

Margaret Mead

It is unfortunate but true that pollution is not just a technical problem as was the case of putting man on the moon. It is as much sociological as technological.

John E. Carrol

The very word pollution conjures up visions of chemical wastes discharged into the air from factory chimneys, and obnoxious fumes gushing out of exhaust pipes of motor vehicles on the roads. But environmental scientists are now able to distinguish between two kinds of pollution, outdoor air pollutionthat is present all around us in major cities everywhere and indoor air pollutionthat slowly poisons the atmosphere inside office buildings. The former causes various very serious diseases like lung cancer, acute respiratory infections, ischemic heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. (COPD), and acute lower respiratory infections (in addition particulate air pollution has been linked with strokes, which occur when the blood supply to the brain is cut-off, Small wonder that residents of Delhi are getting extremely worried at the alarming increase in pollution in the city as a whole).

However the latter is believed to cause an ailment that is referred to as sick building syndrome. A few years ago when some employees of a firm in New York City occupied a newly renovated office, everyone started to complain of headaches and giddiness. The symptoms disappeared when the employees went home. But people did not fail to notice that office productivity had suffered to such an extent that the whole unit had to be shifted to another building.

The foregoing is perhaps an extreme example of indoor air pollutionan international problem that is increasingly aggravated, in all countries, by closed ventilators, hermetically sealed windows, artificial ceilings and other so-called energy-saving measures. Many scientists are beginning to believe that indoor air pollution may be a serious public health hazard, particularly in developed countries where, in very tall buildings, executives as well as other staff spend a major portion of the day in closed office rooms. Pollution has begun to invade class rooms and laboratories in schools and colleges also.

There is evidence to show that many contaminants from a variety of sources contribute to air pollution inside offices. The worst offender for smokers as well as non-smokers is ambient cigarette smoke which contains benzene, formaldehyde and carcinogens (substances that cause cancer). (Hence in the West, almost all the cities have tackled the problem on a war-footing e.g cigarette smoking is totally banned in all public places, aircraft, hotels, restaurants and within office buildings. Such measures are being introduced in India also. Cigarette smoking is banned in many buildings, buses, in most cities and aircraft. However enforcement measures in our country are yet to take off in a big way, Smoking prohibition is not there at all in villages where the sheer magnitude of the problem and the weight of the population would make the task extremely difficult to enforce prohibition of smoking. In addition in rural areas pollution in the Western sense may not be viewed as a serious problem for in the villages, having regard to the fact that many diseases, unsanitary conditions, and malnutrition will all have to be tackled simultaneously. This is an area where international agencies will also have to come to the assistance of the government.

The heavy smoker may very soon find himself isolated in a society getting increasingly aware of the dangers to the human system from cigarettes. As of now in office buildings, wet-process copiers give off odourless hydrocarbons that cause fatigue and skin irritations. Dry-process copiers give out ozone, an irritant to the eyes, lungs and the entire respiratory tract. Computer screens emit low levels of radiation which may prove to be harmful, a major factor to be reckoned with in this age of Information Technology.

Other sources of pollution would definitely come as a surprise to most people. Plastic furniture and room dividers as well as compress boards emit formaldehyde and at least 100 volatile compounds. Vinyl carpets—particularly when new—and cleaning fluids release hydrocarbons. Burnt out fluorescent lamps can also prove hazardous. Dirty airconditioner filters can breed bacteria and viruses and these are then blown throughout an office.

It is beginning to be realised that even a buildings design can promote pollution. If there is a basement parking garage, as in most tall buildings in developed countries, carbon monoxide can sail up stairways and lift shafts. In many buildings the air-inlet vents which are located opposite the exhaust vents may pull in contaminated air.

Though most people’s symptoms arising from indoor air pollution are believed to be mild and only temporary, the long-term effects of exposure to office contaminants have not been thoroughly studied yet. Some researchers believe that there is a synergistic relation between low levels of these chemicals and micro-organisms.

Researchers have identified many more contaminants inside offices and houses than are present in the air just outside the doors. Moreover, levels of several agents such as benzene and formaldehyde are routinely found to be more than 10 times higher indoors than outdoors.

In the United States it was noticed a few years ago that levels of contaminants inside factories, were low, falling well within the legal limits set for factories by the United States Occupational Safety Agency on Health Administration. But some scientists argued that those levels were too high for offices. Their argument was that while factories generally employ men in good health, offices may employ allergy-prone persons, elderly people and pregnant women, all of whom are very sensitive to the ill-effects of pollution.

Relatively stringent and realistic limits of acceptable exposures were set about two decades ago by one agency in the United States which supports research on indoor air quality—the American Society of Engineers for Heating, Refrigerating and Airconditioning Engineers ( ASHRAE) but its standards have no legal status. Even if all the tens of thousands of building code districts followed them, which itself is unlikely, office workers would still be in trouble. ASHTAE’s guidelines were initially for only 34 compounds, though there are hundreds of other chemicals found indoors, many with no standards at all. No further work in this direction appears to have been done.

Most scientists and environmental experts now feel that regulation of indoor pollutants in public buildings is unnecessary because, given the information about contaminants and their health hazards, managers and office tenants can be expected to take their own action suited to their office requirements. Some would be inclined to believe that in the near future elimination of indoor air pollution would be as simple as opening a window or unblocking a vent.

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