Air Pollution:

Prior Indoor Air Quality Problems at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

RCED-98-69: Published: Mar 12, 1998. Publicly Released: Mar 27, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the: (1) quality of air inside the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) building when it was occupied in 1981; (2) health effects associated with exposure to formaldehyde; and (3) current management practices at NIEHS for air handling and air monitoring.

GAO noted that: (1) NIEHS does not have data showing what the air quality was inside its new facility during the first 5.5 months that the building was occupied; (2) however, in response to some employees' concerns, the agency began monitoring the air in September 1981; (3) the agency found that formaldehyde levels ranged from 0.1 to 0.34 parts per million (ppm), well below the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's safety standard in effect in 1981; (4) officials of the NIEHS said that during the first 5.5 months, they made adjustments to the air handling system to balance the air flow and introduce more outside air to help alleviate the respiratory problems that some employees were experiencing; (5) formaldehyde is a known irritant; (6) short-term exposure to formaldehyde at concentrations as low as 0.41 ppm can irritate the eyes and the respiratory tract; (7) such effects usually pass quickly, however once exposure ends; (8) according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, short-term exposure to very high concentrations of formaldehyde at levels of 14.1 to 14.3 ppm has produced cancer in the nasal passages of laboratory animals; (9) because it is carcinogenic in animals and is known to damage genetic material in cell cultures, formaldehyde has been classified as a probable human carcinogen; (10) however, examination of epidemiological evidence has not demonstrated a firm relationship between formaldehyde and cancer in humans; (11) the NIEHS' current managers are more aware of the need for adequate air handling systems in buildings and for routinely monitoring indoor air levels to protect employees from exposure to indoor air pollutants than managers were in 1981; (12) for example, prior to a recent move into a new laboratory module at Research Triangle Park, the agency took a number of steps to ensure the quality of the building's indoor air, including improved air handling and monitoring measures; and (13) the manufacturing standards for building materials and office furnishings are more stringent today to ensure that the off-gassing levels of chemicals such as formaldehyde are much lower than in the past years.

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