Setting the Bar for ​​IAQ
How AIHA and IAQA Developed the Indoor Air Quality Body of Knowledge
What does an IAQ investigator need to know? The potential answers to this seemingly simple question are as numerous and diverse as IAQ professionals themselves. Start with regional differences. A consultant in Florida, say, might insist that knowledge of moisture control, dehumidifiers, and air conditioning is essential. But someone who practices in​​ Northern California might know little about these topics and still have a successful practice. Next, consider the variety of potential indoor contaminants, which can range in severity from nuisance odors to cancer-causing chemicals such as radon. Chances are good that no matter what your specialty is, it has potential application in the indoor environment. In the words of Ben Kollmeyer, MPH, CIH, the chief science officer at Forensic Analytical Consulting Services, “IAQ is exposure to just about anything.”
If, as Kollmeyer says, IAQ involves a limitless variety of potential exposures, then the exposed population is also limitless—basically, anyone who spends time indoors. No single IAQ investigator can know about every potential exposure to every potential building occupant. Beginning in 2013, a volunteer project jointly conducted by AIHA and the Indoor Air Quality Association (IAQA) attempted to define the minimum qualifications an IAQ professional must possess to be an effective practitioner. The result of this work was the IAQ Body of Knowledge (BoK), a 12-page list of skills and abilities related to contaminants, health effects, building systems, assessments, mitigation, and proactive approaches to IAQ. The AIHA and IAQA boards of directors approved the BoK last July, and the document is available, along with BoKs on respiratory protection and direct-reading instruments, from the AIHA website. As recalled by three key participants, the IAQ BoK required a lengthy, sometimes painful series of discussions, arguments, and compromises that whittled the vast topic down to core concepts. DRAWING THE LINE The IAQ BoK grew out of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed in May 2013 by AIHA, IAQA, and the AIHA Registry Programs. The three organizations envisioned the BoK as a foundation for future education initiatives, skills assessments, research projects, and other collaborations. A related benefit is that the BoK will help qualified practitioners differentiate themselves from unqualified ones in the marketplace. Development of the BoK began with the appointment of a steering committee comprising elected leaders and staff from AIHA and IAQA. The steering committee oversaw the coordination of effort in this joint project. A second group of volunteers from both organizations served as subject matter experts and drafted the document. These two groups, the steering committee and the SME project team, were tasked with determining what in the vast universe of potential IAQ knowledge is essential for practitioners. The process lasted 18 months, and its results were sent to a much larger group of IAQ professionals for feedback and validation. The BoK team didn’t have to start from scratch. AIHA’s Indoor Environmental Quality Committee had produced a document that was essentially a forerunner of the BoK. Length was a concern: the document, while helpful, was already beyond what was considered a manageable size for the BoK. “It was a comprehensive and detailed document that could serve as a good outline to develop educational offerings,” recalls Mary Ann Latko, CAE, CIH, CSP, QEP, who served as AIHA’s staff liaison to the BoK steering committee. “But for a BoK, we needed to develop a concise document that focused on the needed knowledge and skills of a competent practitioner.”
Resources from IAQA U​niversity IAQA University is a collection of 50 one-hour, online classes on a variety of IAQ issues. Classes are available in seven categories: IAQ overview, fundamentals of contaminants, HVAC, assessments, mold remediation, building science, and sampling. Participants can earn credits toward certifications. For a list of classes or more information, visit the IAQA website.
According to Kollmeyer, who was one of AIHA’s representatives on the project team, the key was to determine the appropriate level of depth for the BoK. “That was what we struggled with: where do we draw the line, and how deep people should dive,” he says, pointing to radon as an example. “An IAQ investigator should know radon could be an issue, but do they have to know the details of radon? Or can they just go get a radon specialist if in fact that raises its head?” “Everyone thinks the exact amount of information that they know is the perfect amount,” says Ian Cull, PE, CIAQP, president of Indoor Sciences, Inc., an IAQ training and consulting firm based in Chicago. Cull previously served on IAQA’s board of directors and was one of IAQA’s representatives on the BoK project team. “You get ten indoor air quality folks in a room, and they can come up with a long, long list of all the things that everyone should know,” Cull says. “And it’s hard to argue against them.” HVAC SYSTEMS Sharing their professional experiences helped the volunteers on the BoK team distinguish between knowledge and skills that an IAQ practitioner must possess and those that can be provided by other professionals. HVAC systems were among the points of contention. “We had some members of our team who were essentially HVAC engineers, who knew test and balance and the nitty gritty detail, and can do all kinds of stuff in terms of HVAC engineering,” Kollmeyer says. “But other investigators are quite effective at resolving issues who simply make a recommendation to have the system evaluated by an engineer for balancing. So it’s that concept of having an awareness of what your blind spots are. You don’t have to know everything, but you need to know enough to know when to go to somebody who is a specialist.” Other team members had the opposite inclination. If you can call a specialist to handle problems related to the HVAC system, maybe it doesn’t need to be in the BoK at all. According to this view, IAQ investigators should confine themselves to exposures. Eventually, Kollmeyer explains, the team decided that the BoK needed to be multi-disciplinary so that it reflected the typical causes and solutions of IAQ problems. While several statements related to HVAC systems were included in the final BoK, the team took pains to keep the language relatively broad: the BoK specifies that IAQ investigators should “demonstrate an understanding” of various aspects of HVAC systems, including their common components, types of ventilation, air distribution systems, filter categories, and so on. For other issues, such as corrosive drywall, vapor intrusion, nanoparticle exposures, even meth lab contaminants, the team determined that IAQ investigators can seek additional training to supplement their knowledge. None of these issues are mentioned in the BoK. CERTIFICATION Team discussions about where to set the bar for the BoK also touched on individual qualifications. Should the BoK specify that IAQ investigators must be CIHs? Ultimately, the team decided that requiring a CIH would be counter-productive for IAQ practitioners. Cull points to the fact that the population of CIHs is small compared to the number of indoor environments with potential IAQ problems. He also raises the concern that some homeowners with serious IAQ issues might not be able to afford an IAQ investigator with a CIH. “People who have radon or a mold problem or asbestos dangling by a thread on a pipe—a lot of those people would be left without any solution,” he says. Kollmeyer, who is a CIH, agrees that limiting IAQ investigations to CIHs is neither practical nor helpful for IAQ practitioners. “If we set a bar too high to where we don’t get enough professionals engaged to meet that market demand, then the market’s going to seek other people to help them with IAQ investigations,” he says. He also argues that the CIH certification doesn’t necessarily indicate that an individual is a good IAQ investigator. “The CIH is a broad set of knowledge. It doesn’t mean that you know everything you’re going to need to know,” he says. “Many of these issues are very practical, hands-on, investigative problem-solving that comes from experience. IAQ issues can range from very practical things to esoteric contaminants. You don’t always need that [CIH] level of expertise to solve these problems, and sometimes that level of expertise can be a hindrance by making something too complex.”
“It isn’t likely that a person is going to be fully competent in all of these areas. Someone who’s coming from a building management side may not know much about health effects. Someone who’s coming from an industrial hygiene side may have to really brush up on buildings and building systems.”
SAMPLING AND RESOLUTION Sampling for contaminants is an integral part of IAQ investigations, and another issue for which the BoK team struggled to set an appropriate bar. Kollmeyer acknowledges t​hat some practitioners will wonder why the BoK doesn’t provide a standard sampling protocol. The team decided that specific protocols are the kind of “toolbox” knowledge best found in other resources, such as the recently published IAQ Investigator’s Guide (see the sidebar). “We didn’t want to make the body of knowledge about ‘how do you sample for x, y, and z,’” Kollmeyer says. “Our point was to keep the knowledge at the level of concepts as opposed to specific sampling protocols. Individuals working in their markets need to determine specific sampling protocols and plans.” The team also had lengthy discussions about the question of resolution. When is an IAQ investigator’s job done? How much do consultants need to know about mitigation, for example, if they’re not the ones who will be performing that work? Some professionals might be surprised that the BoK specifies communication and conflict resolution as skills IAQ investigators should possess. As Kollmeyer explains, the BoK team felt that “the IAQ investigator’s reach goes through solutions as opposed to, ‘Here are your problems, bye-bye.’ And there was a lot of discussion about how much you need to know about coordinating repairs and fixes. There are a lot of people who say, well, that’s not really our job. And other people say it absolutely is our job, that to be a professional means guiding people through the fixes.” THE CRUX No matter their background or level of experience, IAQ investigators will find something in the BoK that requires further study. “It isn’t likely that a person is going to be fully competent in all of these areas,” Latko says. “Someone who’s coming from a building management side may not know much about health effects. Someone who’s coming from an industrial hygiene side may have to really brush up on buildings and building systems.” For Kollmeyer, the crux of the matter is for practitioners to be aware of their limitations. “Some people [whose focus is] health contaminants will be surprised by how much practical HVAC engineering and solutions stuff they should know. And the HVAC engineering people might be surprised by how much they should know about individual contaminants. And maybe everyone would be surprised by how much they need to know about the psychosocial aspects of resolving IAQ issues and the risk communication aspects.” And, as Cull mentions, it can be difficult for successful practitioners to acknowledge that they might have gaps in their knowledge of IAQ issues. “Everyone who looks at this body of knowledge is going to have their strengths and their areas of weakness,” he says. “You need to know what you don’t know.” ED RUTKOWSKI is editor in chief of The Synergist. He can be reached at or (703) 846-0737.
Just Published: Third Edition of The IAQ Investigator’s Guide Now that the IAQ Body of Knowledge has been released, the next step for AIHA and IAQA is to map each statement in the BoK to specific content where practitioners can find the knowledge they need to be effective. One such resource, The IAQ Investigator’s Guide, third edition, was recently published by AIHA. The Guide helps investigators respond to IAQ complaints and determine the causes of IAQ problems.
The new edition of the Guide includes updates on relevant standards and guidelines, and new material on risk communication and the writing of IAQ reports. It also discusses how green building and low- and zero-energy initiatives might affect IAQ. More information has been added on lighting, noise, radon, and HVAC systems.
“This is meant to be a practical guide,” says Ellen Gunderson, CIH, CSP, who edited and coauthored both the second and third editions. A key concern for both iterations, she says, was to make the Guide useful for all IAQ practitioners, not just industrial hygienists, and to save less experienced investigators from making common mistakes, such as drawing conclusions too quickly.
“When you [respond to an IAQ complaint], you have to be good at interviewing and finding out things from the people who are making the complaint, and then assess not just the air but all the other things that may be factors, especially in the air handling system,” Gunderson says. “If someone goes into IH, they might come out of their studies thinking, ‘I can go in and sample and diagnose a problem, and create the solution.’ But it’s not that clear-cut in IAQ most of the time.”
The third edition is now available in the AIHA Marketplace. More information from The Synergist’s interview with Gunderson appears below. The Synergist: What are the most difficult IAQ investigations you’ve worked on?
Ellen Gunderson: Some of the most challenging for me are when a cluster of coworkers who have or have had certain serious illnesses, like cancer, think the cause may be related to something in their work environment. This is usually very rare in IAQ, but you still need to respond and draw on your best people skills as well as technical expertise to conduct a thorough investigation. Also, in cases like this, a team approach is helpful, as we suggest in The IAQ Investigator’s Guide. Involving an independent occupational physician in this type of investigation can be invaluable. They can interview individuals privately, assess their medical issues, review findings and data from the workplace investigation, and determine if the medical conditions might be attributed in any way to the environment.
TS: What would you say is the most common problem in the way that industrial hygienists conduct IAQ investigations?
EG: There are different types of problems. Sometimes it’s the approach. You really shouldn’t make quick assumptions about what the problem might be. You can’t diagnose an IAQ problem over the phone. You have to go to the area, hopefully in a timely manner, talk to people, and assess the situation like a good detective.
Some IHs may want to sample first and draw conclusions based on the sampling results. But there’s a lot more to IAQ than just taking samples. Sampling is necessary in some situations, especially for suspect exposure to carbon monoxide, certain chemical contamination, or radon. You need to sample to ensure that exposures do not exceed certain exposure standards or guidelines.
Looking at the whole situation is important, and some people who are new to IAQ investigations may not have the patience. Many times, there might be multiple problems, and other times it may be a simple thing—something that could be solved by adjustment of the temperature or air flow in the HVAC system or having the work area cleaned. TS: You mentioned the importance of interviewing occupants individually and not collectively. Why is that? EG: If you meet with a group of people and they’re all convinced that they know what the problem is, you get an impression of what it might be. But if you talk to individuals, you may learn a wide spectrum of opinions and issues that may be important in the investigation. In some situations IAQ complaints may not be related to physical problems in the workplace at all, but may be related to workplace stress or dissatisfaction with management. Or was the complaint triggered by the latest IAQ item online or in the media?
Even if only one person is complaining, you try to make a difference for that one person. Some people are just more sensitive than others. So then you’re focusing on their concerns in their specific work area. You may be challenged to track down a faint intermittent odor. Some IAQ complaints may be related in part to poor housekeeping: is the area clean? Shampooing the carpet and cleaning the furnishings may make a difference. Some practical things can be done initially to help address typical IAQ problems, which can make a difference and might even solve the problem. But there could be serious problems, too, that you don’t want to take lightly. You have to be aware of the wide spectrum.