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What is Air Quality? Definitions and Pollution Sources

Earlier this year, a very interesting New Yorker article was published regarding the air pollution commonly found in homes.  The article provided details about an indoor air quality study conducted in a ranch house on the engineering campus of the University of Texas at Austin.  This study prompted discussion amongst several W&M staffers about the different terminology and services related to ‘air quality’ that happens at W&M and how it can be very confusing to differentiate between each type if you aren’t “in the business”!

Depending upon the goal of a project, the term ‘air quality’ may or may not be technically correct and it has different meanings depending upon the specifics of the project being requested.  W&M offers many different services to its industrial, oil & gas, education, and real estate clients, and each of these business sectors requires different types of ‘air quality’ support.  Industrial compliance is one of W&M’s main service areas, which includes industrial hygiene services.  There are three main types of these services that fall under the umbrella of industrial hygiene that W&M offers: (1) worker exposure monitoring, (2) workplace air quality assessments, and (3) ambient air quality studies.

Worker Exposure Monitoring

Worker exposure monitoring or workplace industrial hygiene assessments are very common services frequently provided to our manufacturing clients.  When chemicals are used in a workplace, there is often some amount of the chemical that gets into the workplace atmosphere, such as welding fumes, silica dust, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) limits the airborne concentration of chemicals that workers can be exposed to without causing ill effects and requires employers to ensure they stay below the limits.  OSHA also has regulations that require workers be informed about the hazards of the chemicals they are potentially exposed to, commonly referred to as the “right to know” law.

Workplace Air Quality Assessments

Often, at that same manufacturing location, the office workers may express concern about the air if they see visible mold, if the air seems stuffy, or if they can smell odors that are unfamiliar.  W&M often is called upon to conduct an Indoor Air Quality study or assessment in these non-manufacturing environments, where employees are not being exposed to airborne contaminants as a result of chemical use during manufacturing, but there are⁠ ⁠(or may be) air pollutants present from cleaning chemicals, mold or other common indoor air contaminants not associated with manufacturing.

Ambient Air

The third type of industrial hygiene assessment that W&M provides is related to the ambient air, which is the outdoor air.  W&M clients sometimes request assistance in determining if operations at a site (e.g., construction site, oil & gas storage tank site, etc.) are potentially affecting the surrounding community, or they want to confirm that there are no contaminants migrating from their site into the surrounding community.  In this case, W&M will perform ‘fence line’ monitoring or ambient air monitoring.

As you can see, many different terms describe ‘indoor air’ or ‘air quality’ under the umbrella of Industrial Hygiene.  W&M also provides Air Permitting services, which would not be considered industrial hygiene but certainly involves air quality.  If you have any questions about air quality, worker exposure, or air permitting, please contact Lori Siegelman, CIH, CSP, CHMM.

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