The Unseen IAQ Mennace

We’ve talked about all manner of Air Quality issues: pollen, viruses, volatile organic compounds, and more. There is however, one less frequently talked about devil in the air: radon, methane, and other ground seepage. These are harmful, either explosive, cancer-causing, or otherwise dangerous materials that can seep from the soil below. You’ll never know they’re there until it’s too late.

How Does It Happen?

Time for some science. The ground beneath you is not pure, solid dirt and rock straight to the Earth’s core. It’s not all one particular elemental composition either. There’s pockets of different materials, gasses, radioactive elements, and so on. These materials either work their way to the surface or they emit something that does.

Consider for example, a gas like methane. This exists underground, in porous areas of rock or in large, hollow caves. It’s under extreme pressure from the rest of the Earth pressing down on it. All it takes is a path to the surface for it to flow out. When we do mining for it, we drill down and use a pipe to provide that path to the surface. The Methane is a low-density gas, it wants to move higher up, in the same way helium can make balloons float.

There is some amount of natural seepage. The gas makes it way up through the ground and rock, tiny pores and cracks that let it slowly escape. The ground beneath you is not water-tight. If you have well water, water from rain drips down into an underground cavern, and that’s the water you’re drinking.

The issue arises with the confined nature of houses and basements. The gas in most of the world seeps up, hits the outdoors, and disburses pretty harmlessly. It never gets a chance to reach a lethal or deadly concentration. Buildings, basements, and all things man-made though, are small structures that trap the gasses inside. We don’t let it escape quickly or safely. That would require a significant rate of air replacement inside the building.

What’s The Harm?

There are a couple of scenarios for what can go wrong. And things do go horribly wrong.

  • Methane Gas
    Methane is a combustible gas. In the right mixture of methane to air, it’ll burn, possibly explode. This issue is bigger with mining operations, but can be just as much a threat to regular industry and businesses. When the gas gets at the right concentration, and anything ignites it, cigarettes, lighters, a grill, it catches, explodes, and the pressure may crush the building or the flames burn it to the ground.
  • Radon Gas
    Radon on the other hand, is the more common threat. When uranium and other nuclear elements decay, Radon is one of their biproducts. This is a radioactive gas, it will decay in the air, emitting low levels of radiation like Alpha and Beta particles. That there is the problem: nuclear material in the air. You’ll inhale the radon or it’s particles or child elements, those then damage the cells of your lungs, creating cancer.

The risks to your business vary. On the one hand, methane or another flammable gas could reach exactly the right concentration and leave you on the hook for the injuries and deaths of employees and guests, plus having to replace your facility. Insurance may cover some of it, but there may be criminal charges. Radon on other hand, is a slow killer. Your guests would probably be alright. Your employees however, could receive sufficient exposure to develop cancer. There’s fewer more painful ways to die, and if it were connected to you, the employees medical bills and damages for pain and suffering could come into the picture, as well as having to do health screenings for all employees. After that, the facility needs to be decontaminated and preventatives put in place.

An Ounce of Prevention

The issue of Radon, Methane, and other gasses is very easily headed off before anything ever happens: have your facility tested for airborne gasses, install gas detectors, and if necessary, install the proper preventative systems, whether they’re ventillation or chemical scrubbers that remove the contaminants from the air.

These measures will vary in cost depending on the size of the facility and the exact nature of the issue. In an ideal set up, you would have active and passive detectors hooked to your fire safety system. This is essential for methane and fire prevention. It can trigger the system to take pre-planned measures, like increase ventilation or evacuate the building. Passive meanwhile may require replacement over time, BUT they serve as a quick, visual check for safety. If an employee sees that a radon detecting patch has triggered, they know to leave the area and get help.

Your first step here would be to contact an air quality specialist who can conduct on site and lab tests. From there, you’ll need your HVAC Contractor and perhaps a specialist to plan what equipment is necessary, install it, and advise you on what actions are necessary towards your guests and employees. It may be necessary to decontaminate the facility and conduct health screenings.

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