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Unseen Concerns: Identify & Manage Invisible Contaminants

Whether you’re acquiring or managing a property, colorless, odorless contaminants can cause you as much or more worry than any visible problems–especially considering the implications to the health of the building occupants.

Partner’s Technical Director of Industrial Hygiene, Brian Nemetz, CMC, offers insight into identifying and managing these contaminants to prevent impact to human health, and protect you from liability now and in the future.

Q: What are the potential concerns in the air inside of my building?
Gas or vapor contaminants can be present in soils, rock or water underneath the building. One of these concerns is radon. Radon is a radioactive gas that occurs naturally when uranium breaks down. The EPA estimates that exposure to radon gas, a recognized carcinogen, is responsible for more than 20,000 lung cancer deaths. Radon can seep into your building through small cracks in the foundation or spaces between service pipes.

Mercury is an airborne vapor that has been an increasing concern. Mercury hazards come from the binder in rubber-like polyurethane floors. In rooms with poor ventilation and/or those subjected to elevated temperatures, vapors can be released into the air. Mercury vapors can be inhaled or absorbed into skin, and can damage the central nervous system, kidneys, lungs, eyes, and skin.

While these are two specific inhalants, the overall indoor air quality (IAQ) of your building should be taken into account. You may be able to tell by looking at them that your systems are older or that your building envelope or roof has been compromised, but you may not be able to see what it has done to the air your inhabitants will breathe. Insufficient ventilation will not only fail to circulate air out of the building; it could allow equally concerning pollutants in.

Q: If a hazard isn’t easily detected, how will I know if it’s present in my building?
The good news is that there is testing and monitoring available for these unpleasant surprises. Each has its own testing methods. Indoor air sampling can be unobtrusive and fairly simple to perform. Testing should include field measurements for temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide/monoxide, and organic compounds using hand held meters. Air samples can be collected and sent out to a laboratory for analysis. Radon testing is typically done by collecting air samples in containers that are sent out for analysis. In some cases, short-term sampling is fine, but others may require long-term testing due to the temperature fluctuation over the course of a year.

Q: What are the major concerns that could be hidden within the walls of a building?
While there are a variety of building material contaminants, the two that we hear about most are asbestos and mold. In newer buildings, property owners may not consider asbestos a concern, but it is still used in building materials up to present day. In June 2018, the EPA proposed the Significant New Use Rule (SNUR) that is intended to strengthen regulations, but may actually increase the amount of asbestos containing materials (ACM) installed in the future. Asbestos fibers can easily break off and become airborne (or can be exposed during demolition or renovations). Asbestos is a known human carcinogenic, and is the culprit for a variety of lung, chest, and abdominal illnesses.

And then there’s mold, a common occurrence in many buildings. Mold can grow on any porous material: sheetrock, wood, wallpaper, fabrics, etc. This typically happens when a building is poorly-ventilated or has other systemic deficiencies, such as leaky plumbing or improper insulation. While the presence of mold isn’t necessarily harmful, continuous exposure can lead to illnesses ranging from allergies to significant sicknesses.

Q: If it is in the walls or flooring, how can building owners evaluate the extent of contamination without causing further exposure?
Property owners or buyers should be made aware if their building contains ACM, but if the structure was built prior to 1981, there is a greater risk of having ACM. An asbestos survey, conducted by a certified professional, is the first step. This will typically include sampling areas of suspect ACM or, if demolition is planned, a screening of the materials that could potentially be disturbed. If mold is suspected because of a leak or water intrusion, a moisture survey can be conducted using specialized equipment. The presence of mold can also be detected through air sampling.

Q: If building owners find these contaminants in their buildings, what should they do to reduce their liability and avoid future risks to their tenants?
The best thing a property owner or manager can do is be proactive. While many building owners worry about the expense and hassle of remediation if their testing comes up positive, the benefit of getting in front a problem far outweighs the cost and liability associated with buying or managing a building plagued with hidden issues. Issues like these don’t disappear, and can become more severe if ignored. Getting a full assessment of your building by a qualified professional could save you from financial and legal risks associated with exposing your building inhabitants to these hidden contaminants.

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For comments, questions or concerns, please contact Dennis Kaiser


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About Dennis Kaiser

Dennis Kaiser is Vice President of Content and Public Relations for Connect Commercial Real Estate. Dennis is a communications leader with more than 30 years of experience including as a journalist and in corporate and agency marketing communications roles. He is responsible for Connect’s client content operations and is involved in a range of initiatives ranging from content strategy, message development, copywriting, media relations, social media and content marketing services. In his most recent corporate communications roles, he led a regional public relations effort across Southern California for CBRE, played a key marketing role on JLL’s national retail team, and was responsible for directing the global public relations effort at ValleyCrest, the nation’s largest commercial landscape services company. In addition to his vast commercial real estate experience, Dennis has worked on communications and launch strategies for a number of residential projects such as Disney’s Celebration in Florida, Ritter Ranch in Palmdale California (7,200 homes, 22,000 acres), WaterColor in Florida and PremierGarage in Phoenix. Dennis’s agency background included firms such as Idea Hall and Macy + Associates. He has earned an outstanding reputation with organization leaders as a trusted advisor, strategic program implementer, consensus builder and exceptional collaborator. Dennis has developed and managed national communications programs for Fortune 500 companies to start-ups, both public and private. He’s successfully worked with journalists across the globe representing clients involved in major-breaking news stories, product launches, media tours, and company news announcements. Dennis has been involved in a host of charitable and community organizations including the American Cancer Society, Easter Seals, BoyScouts, Chrysalis Foundation, Freedom For Life, HOLA, L.A.’s BEST, Reach Out and Read, Super Bowl Host Committee, and Thunderbirds Charities.

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