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Materials Air Quality Testing

CARB Formaldehyde Chamber Materials Air Quality Test

Materials Air Quality Testing

Since news broke that Lumber Liquidators may have distributed composite wood flooring in California that did not meet California Air Resource Board (CARB) formaldehyde emission standards, we’ve been getting lots of questions about materials air quality testing. Questions are coming from all angles. Some folks are interested in joining the class action law suit, some distributors and installation companies are worried about blowback from their customers, and then there’s the home owners who just want to know if their home has unusually high levels of formaldehyde. Everyone is concerned, and it seems few know exactly what to ask. This blog aims to explain the difference between materials air quality testing and bulk materials testing.

Materials air quality testing

Does this Plywood Contain Formaldehyde? Meet CARB Emissions Standards?

Air Quality Testing vs. Bulk Materials Chamber Testing

Air testing” generally refers to sampling ambient air. This can be done indoors or outdoors. Air testing can tell you what is in the air at that moment in time. Some air testing is instantaneous and measures what’s in the air for a moment, other air testing can be done over a longer period of time and shows the total or average exposure level over time.

We most commonly test air using real-time meters for temperature, humidity, CO, CO2, particle counts, combustible gases, etc. However, for accurate measurements of gases (VOCs) at low levels, or for the identification and quantification of microscopic particulates we must collect samples in the field and have them analyzed at a laboratory. Some forms of lab analysis provide value in determining if there is a problem, and identifying how far the problem extends and exactly what contaminants are present.

You need air quality testing if you want to know what is in the air you breathe.

Materials air quality testing

Air Sampling for Viable Mold – Pitri Dish

Bulk Material Testing” generally refers to testing solid materials. Bulk material tests may include testing a piece of painted drywall for lead and asbestos, or soil testing for heavy metals, pesticides, or petroleum products. Within this category of lab analysis we would also include testing flooring samples for formaldehyde emissions. There are many different types of formaldehyde emission tests, and you have to know what reference standard to which to compare the results. In the case of the Lumber Liquidators fiasco, it’s the California Air Resources Board (CARB) standards. This type of materials testing involves placing a bulk sample into a chamber and monitoring what off-gasses over twenty hours.

Bulk material testing is required if you’re trying to demonstrate that a regulated material does not meet emission standards, or if you’re trying to connect what you found in the ambient air to what materials are in the building.

Knowing what testing will provide the most value to the case is the job of an Industrial Hygienist (IH).

Materials air quality testing

LEED Indoor Air Quality IAQ Testing – Using Summa Canister

What does LEED IAQ & Materials Air Quality Testing Tell You?

LEED IAQ Air Quality Testing

  • Evaluates only the following parameters in ambient air:
    • Formaldehyde
    • Fine particulates (PM10)
    • Total Volatile Organic Compounds (TVOCs), and
    • Carbon Monoxide (CO)
  • Involves very few sampling locations per building (1 sample < 25,000 sf)
  • Involves a site visit and sampling over a 4-hr period
  • Might indicate whether or not there is a significant IAQ problem

Bulk Materials Testing

  • Can identify just about any contaminant, including formaldehyde
  • Quantifies emissions at very low levels
  • Verifies only what that specific material or material assembly is emitting
  • Does not require a site visit, but can be quite costly
Materials air quality testing

Air Quality Testing at USGBC GreenBuild

What Air Testing and Bulk Material Tests Don’t Tell You

  • Air testing may reveal relatively high formaldehyde levels indoors, but ambient air quality testing will not tell you where the formaldehyde is coming from.
  • Air testing only tells you what was in the air at a certain point in time, and often only provides an average exposure level over time.
  • Bulk material testing may reveal a material is emitting relatively high levels of formaldehyde, but it cannot tell you if levels in indoor air exceed any Exposure Limits in the US.
  • Bulk materials tests identify and quantify what is emitted from a particular material (or material assembly) at a particular point in time, but it’s only indicative of the time the sample is in the chamber. It is not an accurate representation of emission characteristics from 1 month ago, or what it will emit 1 year from now.

Materials air quality testing is complicated stuff and not for the layperson. If you have questions about the air quality in your home or workplace, or if you wonder if a specific material might be causing indoor air quality problems, please give Healthy Building Science a call to:

  1. Help develop a hypothesis and testing regimen appropriate for your case
  2. Coordinate air quality and bulk materials testing
  3. Interpret lab results and put the results into perspective
  4. Formulate an action plan to improve IAQ – if there is a problem

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