One of the interesting things I’ve learned in my
years of dealing with indoor air quality problems
(IAQs) is that everyone reacts differently. One
person might sneeze, another might get a headache,
and yet a third have no reaction at all. However, many
employers mistakenly believe if there is an IAQ problem,
everyone should be reacting to it in the same way.
My sister-in-law was highly allergic to perfumes,
specifically women’s perfume. When she went to church
and a heavily perfumed lady came in and sat down in
front of her, my sister-in-law had to move to avoid getting
a headache. Her husband, on the other hand, never
noticed the lady or her perfume.
The same scenario plays out in workplaces across the
country. Often one employee will complain about “sick
building syndrome.” But until several others complain
about the air quality in the same area of the building, the
employer does not think there is a real problem. It’s time
for employers to take all employee complaints—even if no
one else is complaining—seriously.
Mold Sensitivity Varies
Although mold is a main source of poor IAQ, government
agencies have not set standards for levels of mold
contamination in indoor air environments. The reason for
the lack of standards is that people respond differently to
mold. Why is that true?
People have different immune systems. Some people
are very concerned about the water they drink, the food
they eat, and the amount of exercise they get. Others are
not so concerned. Unhealthy people with suppressed
immune systems may react to IAQ contaminants more
than a healthier person with a strong immune system.
Women can be more sensitive to their physical
environment than men. That sounds biased but it’s
simply a fact. My sister-in-law could not go into her
basement because of the mold, but her husband and four
boys played ping-pong down there with no apparent
reaction. When I talk with women who are experiencing
IAQ problems while their husbands are “oblivious,” I tell
them that opposites attract.
Additionally, some molds are more toxic than others.
Mold is ubiquitous, even in indoor environments, so
we are seldom in an environment where mold is not
present. Why don’t all of us react? Some folks react to
specific molds while others won’t react at all. Some molds
produce high levels of mycotoxins while others do not. A
large amount of mold can be problematic to some people
while a small amount may not affect them at all. The type
of mold, the amount of mold, and the environment in
which the mold is growing are all factors influencing a
One Employee Reaction Matters
As employers, we should take worker complaints about
IAQ and mold problems seriously. If we are proactive
in dealing with environmental issues, even if we are not
personally experiencing these issues ourselves, it will
validate the concerns of those who may be more sensitive
and establish a confidence that we are concerned about
the health and safety of our fellow workers.