How healthy is your office?
Office workers spend eight hours a day marinating in carcinogens and chemical substances. Photocopiers emit ozone. Printers spew ultrafine particulates. Furniture and computers stew in brominated flame-retardants.
Just how dangerous is this chemical cauldron?
"Do you have levels of carcinogens in office environments that you would expect to lead to an excess of cancers in office workspaces? By and large, the answer is no," says Ray Copes, BC Centre for Disease Control environmental health director. "Do you have any exposure to carcinogens in typical indoor environments? The answer is definitely yes."
Photocopiers can emit ozone into your office.
But hold the panic.
"There are lots of things you should be worried about first," Copes says. "If you get down to the point where that's all you have to worry about, you're doing well."
In many offices, for instance, stress and workload may actually be a bigger health problem than what's in the air, Copes says.
That's not to say office air quality is not vitally important.
A U.S. survey found that one quarter of office workers perceived indoor air-quality problems in their offices, and about 20 per cent reported their work performance hampered by air quality, Copes says, adding that he suspects those figures are conservative.
"[Poor air quality] can contribute to headaches and lack of concentration," says Karen Bartlett, University of B.C. associate professor in environmental health.
"There will always be some portion of the population that is in fact very sensitive to chemicals and we don't know what triggers that.
There really isn't any evidence that just being in an office will bring on chemical sensitivity."
The health risks from things like carpet, glue and inadequate vacuuming are "actually pretty low," even over a lifetime of exposure, and publications that raise cries of alarm are generally "overstating it a bit," she says.
In general, "the less stuff you have in your environment that is offgassing, the better you will feel, the more productive you will be and the happier you will feel," Bartlett says. "But there is a big gap between a headache feeling, and coming down with a disease that is actually caused by the office."
Office health risks were much higher 20 years ago, Copes says.
"In the 1980s, the riskiest exposure was secondhand smoke," Copes says. "I think you'd be hard pressed to find something today that is equivalent. You get concerns about photocopiers, carpets, cleaning products. The levels and risks we would estimate from those exposures are typically orders of magnitude less than we can document from secondhand smoke exposure."
Today, "most of the things you're going to find in offices, you're going to find at home as well," Copes says. Between home and office, most people spend 90 per cent of their time indoors, he says.
"Most of us are working in offices that are fine in the sense that we're not going to experience any toxic effects; however, that's a different question from 'Are there exposures to substances in our workplace and can we reduce those effectively?'"