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Bay Area Research Finds Lack Of Fresh Air Makes Workers Sick

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) -- It's a stunning statistic: Americans spend 70 to 90 percent of their life indoors. For millions of workers, most of that time is spent at the office. So what does that mean for your health?

Millions of office workers suffer from building-related symptoms. 41 percent report at least one symptom that is related to their building and 20 percent report at least 3 symptoms.

Mark Mendell with the California Department of Public Health said even though most symptoms are minor such as headaches, coughs and sniffles, other symptoms can be more serious. "They could range from asthma allergic responses, respiratory infections," he said.

What's causing it all? "There are hundreds if not thousands of chemicals in offices," Mendell said.

At the Department of Public Health's lab in Richmond, they are analyzing materials such as particle board and fiberboard used in furniture to identify those chemicals.

"The one that is most well understood is formaldehyde," said Mendell. "Its known to cause irritation at levels commonly found indoors."

Compounding it all is a lack of fresh air. Most office windows don't open, so workers are at the mercy of the building's ventilation system. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates 50 percent of office buildings don't provide enough outside air.

Just increasing ventilation rates would have a huge impact, according to a new report out of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "We will reduce health symptoms, we will increase our work performance and in addition we'll have some reductions in absence," said William Fisk with the lab.

Fisk authored the study and said the economy would benefit too. "By increasing the ventilation rate in U.S. office buildings that have below average rates to a practical value, we project that we would save $10-$20 billion annually in the U.S. at an annual implementation cost of 2-10ths of a billion."

One building that is doing it right: the new Department of Education Office in Sacramento. "This is truly a trendsetter for the state," said Jim Ogden. He's the consultant that helped design it, and took CBS 5 on a tour.

The experience starts at the front door, where people coming in pass over a special grate that cleans the dirt from off the bottom of your feet.

But the big thing is the unique ventilation system. Air comes in from the floor instead of from the ceiling and there's a vent in each cubicle. "So that allows each person to adjust the amount of air that they are getting in their workspace, so you get that individual control," said Ogden.

Most of the air is actually coming from the outside. Air coming through giant windows is filtered through massive filters that take out all the toxins, making sure that the people downstairs are breathing the cleanest air possible.

Workers such as Stephanie Papas love it. "The old building had a sort of musty feeling, but it's never felt that way here," she said. Since she moved into the building five years ago, Papas said she has been sick a lot less. "I think it's important for management to be aware of the fact that they have a strong part in providing a work environment that is healthy," she said.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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