Indoor Air Quality Stories – Part I

Apr 9, 2020

During my years working as an indoor air quality consultant, I have seen a number of wild things.  I have performed mold testing in eighteen-wheeler trucks and yachts on Lake Michigan. I have worked on sets for movies and TV shows.  I have worked in the homes of the rich and famous, along with properties that should have been condemned. The stories I can tell! In the midst of going to these interesting assignments, I have discovered that the methodology is primarily the same for all.  We might believe something is caused by one issue, but in reality, it can be something entirely different. How do we know?  

The first thing that we must do is start at the very beginning (to quote from the Sound of Music).  Ask yourself the fundamental question: “From the time everything was fine to the time it wasn’t, what changed?”  At first, many of my clients respond by saying that nothing occurred. Nothing changed. But let’s dig a little deeper.  Were there any changes to the property itself? Remodeling? Updating? Even a fresh coat of paint could provide a clue to certain health issues.  It is then that we can perform the appropriate test to see if that is the problem.  

Skin rashes and air quality?

One of my favorite stories involves a client who complained of having respiratory issues and skin rashes on his chest and arms.  He believed that it had to come from mold in either his place of business or from his home. The hunt was on! Our company performed extensive air testing in his office and home.  We used infrared cameras and moisture meters. We crawled into crawlspaces and attics. In the end, we found nothing.  

Sometimes it is just a mystery, but I like to keep digging.  I pursued the same question of “What changed?” Perhaps his ailments were caused by a food allergy.  Maybe he was sick due to a change in medication. “You know,” I said, “it could even be a change in laundry soap.”  

“There is no way that it could be a change in laundry detergent,” he told me.

Intrigued, I asked, “why?”.

“Because I dry clean all my clothes.”

Wait a minute.  You dry clean all of your clothes?   

Indoor air quality, or just dry cleaning?

Dry cleaning can have a great number of possible hazards.   One of those potentially hazardous chemicals is tetrachloroethylene (a.k.a, perchloroethylene or PERC).  This is a solvent used by most dry cleaners. It is also considered a likely human carcinogen.   

I immediately went to the client’s closet and wrapped some of his suits around a device that measures total volatile organic compounds (TVOCs).  Sure enough, I was able to observe the TVOCs levels start to tick up. I immediately advised the client to shower and wear clothes that were not dry cleaned.  Within an hour, the client came back to me and reported that he felt much better.

Indoor air or something else?

Like good detectives, we spend our time eliminating suspects.  A client’s sickness may be very real, but the cause could be something that we never considered.  The only way to know for certain is to ask the proper questions and perform the appropriate testing.  To answer the question of “What changed?”, my client finally admitted to changing dry cleaners. That’s what changed.  The next step was the testing which can help confirm or deny our hypothesis. Whether a hypothesis has been confirmed or disproven, we are gathering important information about the true source. 

What are we bringing into our indoor space?

This got me thinking about another issue.  When we address indoor air quality issues, we immediately look at possible causes that are a part of the building.  But sometimes, we need to step back and consider if there is something else. Are we bringing items into our homes or workspaces that can affect our indoor air quality?  In addition to dry cleaning, are we bringing in paint cans, pesticides, stains, varnishes, or any chemicals that could be detrimental to our health?  


In these times when we may be spending more time than typical inside our homes, it is especially important to consider our air quality. Check to see if there are any issues that could potentially have an effect on your health.  By all means, if you feel sick it is important to get proper medical attention. If you feel that the problem might be related to your environment, continue to question what may have changed. Ask yourself, “What changed?’ and then get the proper testing done.  A trained professional can also help you in finding or ruling out possible issues.