Indoor Air Quality

fresh daisies

"Indoor Air Quality" (IAQ) generally refers to indoor office, classroom, or laboratory environments, as opposed to industrial or outdoor settings. These have ventilation either from windows, or from a heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) system. Common causes of air quality complaints include inadequate outdoor air supply, odors from indoor or outdoor sources, and mold.

Industrial environments, as well as some laboratories and classrooms, contain sources of air contaminants: chemical, particulate, aerosol, or fumes. These contaminants should be controlled by exhaust hoods, or sometimes by increased general dilution ventilation.

IAQ Issues

Responsible Party


Seattle Fire Department dial 911


  • Hazardous Material, minor spill cleanup

Environmental Programs 206.616.5835
  • Suspicious material
Campus Police 206.685.8973 or dial 911
  • Temperature, humidity, light, noise
  • Lack of air, "stuffy"
  • Too much air, "draft"
  • Known odors such as sewer, natural gas, paint, burning
  • Visible mold
Facilities Services or
UWMC Operations & Maintenance
or HMC Engineering
  • Exhaust odors, construction dust, roofing, and construction odors
Facilities Services or
Capital Projects


  • Unknown odors and chemical odors
  • Symptoms or illness associated with the office environment
Environmental Health
& Safety

UWMC Safety
HMC Safety


How Does EH&S Conduct an Indoor Air Quality Investigation?

Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S) will respond to and evaluate IAQ situations. We begin by following the initial steps described above to eliminate likely causes or to easily resolve the problem, such as by adjusting ventilation or temperature settings.

EH&S will gather information about the history of the problem, occupant complaints and/or symptoms, and previous efforts to identify or solve the problem. Based on the occupants' information, and depending on the issues, EH&S will determine:

  • (With Facilities Services' Assistance) if the HVAC system is clean and operating properly, supplying adequate outdoor air volume to dilute and exhaust indoor air contaminants
  • If there are any obvious sources or reservoirs of chemical or microbiological emissions (indoors or outdoors)
  • If the temperature and relative humidity are a factor in health symptoms; or
  • If excessive dusts or other particulates are present, and whether they are generated inside the office or outdoors, and
  • If a space may be occupied safely and without health effects

Not every evaluation identifies a clear source for the air quality issue. Sometimes minor changes to the building or ventilation are effective, other times significant capital improvements are indicated.

Certain individuals have increased sensitivity to particular chemicals, odors, dusts, or allergens when compared to the general population. Sensitive individuals should seek medical attention as needed, and advise their supervisor if they have specific needs so they can be accommodated.

Steps to Prevent IAQ Problems

Excessive Heat Warning and Air Stagnation See more information here.

Odors  If you are doing something that releases an odor, do something to control the smell. Turn on the kitchen fan, or use the product in a fume hood. Close the doors and open the window. At a minimum, tell the people in the area what you are doing. Learn how to use your fume hood properly (an online tutorial can be taken here).

Rotting Food  Frequently, foul odors are from rotten food, so check desk drawers, cabinets, and lunch bags. Make sure the trash and compost get taken out regularly.

Sink and Floor Drains  If not used occasionally, their traps can dry out and allow sewer gases to enter the room. Pour a cup of water down these drains at least every two weeks. Make sure you find the drains under refrigerators and other equipment or furniture. If a fixture is not longer in use, contact Facilities Services to request it be capped off. Maintain floor drains for proper flow to avoid fluid backups into work areas.

Low Emission Products  Look for "Green" or low emission (low VOC) paint, carpet, and furniture when you are planning a remodel. See EPA's Indoor airPLUS for more information.

Cleaning, Office Products, and Other Chemicals  Use only as recommended on the label. Be aware that products with a citrus odor can cause allergies in some people, so avoid their use if possible. Whenever possible, use cleaning products without added fragrances.

Personal Fragrances  These can aggravate allergies in some people; use them sparingly. What smells good to you might cause an adverse reaction in your neighbor.

Adjacent Rooms and Floors  If you notice an odor, check with occupants in nearby rooms and floors to determine if the problem is throughout the building or specific to your workspace. Ask if they are conducting any activities or know of any activities that might create a similar odor.

Ventilation  When products having volatile chemicals or strong odors are used, provide as much ventilation as feasible and schedule work when the building is minimally occupied.

Air Circulation and Dust

Control dust by having carpets vacuumed regularly and cleaned periodically. Wet wiping desks and other furniture weekly can achieve additional dust control.

Keep all ventilation grills and ducts clear. Don't place furniture, boxes, posters, or other items in locations where they will block airflow. Blocking one vent throws off the whole system. Open a request to have Facilities Services send a technician to adjust the airflow.

Some equipment releases contaminants into the air. If it has an exhaust filter, make sure it is changed according to the owner's manual. If it is supposed to be hooked up to a ventilation system to exhaust outdoors, make sure it is hooked up.

If the building has natural ventilation, ensure windows are functional, have a screen, and are cleaned regularly. Use fans to circulate air throughout the space to help dilute indoor contaminants and promote air exchange.

For more information see The Truth About Air Cleaners, Ionizers, and Ozone Generators.

Mold, Mildew, and Water Damage moldy wallboard Moldy wallboard

Report water leaks to Facilities Services (FS) for repair. Roof leaks and dripping pipes will lead to mold if not repaired and dried quickly.

Also, have FS replace ceiling tiles, wall board, and any other building materials that have visible mold.

Assure plants are well maintained and not over watered. Over watering can promote the growth of mold in the soil and on the plant or container. See also Moisture & Building Materials.

Other References

Legionella Bacteria
a cooling tower A cooling tower

Legionella is a type of bacteria that occurs naturally in fresh water sources and soil, but can develop in man-made locations as well. Warm temperature is a crucial factor for the growth of Legionella bacteria. Examples of suitable environments for bacteria growth include:

  • Hot tubs
  • Cooling towers
  • Hot water tanks
  • Large plumbing systems
  • Decorative fountains

Monitoring and chemically treating the water is an effective way to prevent this type of biological growth.

Exposure and Transmission

It is important to note that not all people who come in contact with the Legionella bacteria will become sick. Illness is most likely to occur if a high enough concentration of the bacteria is able to grow in a water source. People can be exposed to the bacteria if mists or vapors containing the bacteria are inhaled. Legionella cannot be transmitted from person to person, and Legionnaires’ disease is not contagious. In some cases, the bacteria can infect the lungs and cause pneumonia. If pneumonia develops due to infection with Legionella bacteria, then it is called Legionnaires’ disease.

Legionella is known as an opportunistic bacteria and tends to infect individuals with a weakened immune system. People most likely at risk of getting sick include:

  • People > 50 years in age
  • Current or former smokers
  • People with a chronic lung disease
  • People with a weak immune system
  • People who take drugs that weaken the immune system

If you believe your work area may be at risk for high levels of Legionella growth or exposure to aerosols containing Legionella, contact EH&S at (206) 543-7262.

More Information

The following resources provide useful information on Legionella and Legionnaires’ disease:

Please report any suspected illness associated with Legionella exposure using the UW Online Accident Reporting System (OARS).



  • IAQ Log -- Environmental Protection Agency