Air Quality and Product Liability Case Studies: A Chemical Expert’s Analysis

TASA ID: 203


IAQ refers to "indoor air quality." People are now spending about 90% of their time indoors either at work, home, or in activities or events. An IAQ Audit is a measure of the cleanliness of the air being inhaled. This means flow and circulation of the air (ventilation and air exchanges) as well as the presence of air pollutants such as particulates (e.g. fumes or invisible dust particles suspended in the air) and toxic gases and vapors. These include such gases as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, low oxygen values, sulfur oxides, formaldehyde, to name just some. The objective is to trace sources of any pollutants and eliminate them.

Poor air quality has two important consequences. First, it compromises employee health and productivity. Employees are more susceptible to getting sick and being absent, or even if present, not able to function at full capacity. The second is more subtle. Expensive instruments which depend on good ventilation and the absence of particulates may malfunction, requiring frequent servicing and leading to more down time. Both of these ultimately result in lower efficiency and productivity.

IAQ Audits are now recommended for:

  • School and college classrooms, gymnasiums, studios, and laboratories.
  • Business offices and administrative suites.
  • Hospitals, including nurses' stations.
  • Restaurants, including kitchen areas.

"A healthy employee is a happy employee, and a happy employee is a productive employee, and word of mouth is the strongest form of advertising for any company."




Every morning and especially on Mondays, a doctor in a large metropolitan hospital complained about vehicle exhaust odors in his second floor office and the headaches that often resulted. Only this occupant complained of the odor; occupants in adjacent offices served by the same air-handling unit had no complaints.

Management investigated the doctor's complaint but could not find evidence of exhaust. Building maintenance personnel made several unsuccessful attempts to eliminate an odor they could not even detect. They were unable to placate the doctor by showing him his office area and the loading dock were serviced by separate air systems. The doctor was labeled a chronic complainer.

Eventually, building maintenance authorized a new investigation that would measure ultra fine particle (UFP) levels, expecting to confirm the absence of the exhaust in the doctor's office. UFP's are particles with a diameter less than 0.1 micrometers.  I was retained to investigate the problem. Using an ultra fine particle counter to measure UFP levels in the supply air, adjacent offices, and outside air (in particles per cm3) within 20 minutes of one another, we determined that the UFP levels were indeed high in the doctor's office-8,320--compared with 910 in adjacent offices and supply air. The source of the problem was an electrical wall outlet, where the UFP level was measure to be 15,400. Once we taped it with duct tape, the UFP levels dropped to normal levels, and doctor felt fine. We found that the electrical conduit from the doctor's office led to a junction box, which then connected to a conduit that led directly to the loading dock. The source of the exhaust fumes was finally confirmed.

A similar problem was experienced at a nurses' station in a hospital. Dust, vapors, and fumes were getting through a second floor expansion joint, under which a major construction project was taking place on the first floor. Once the source was identified and sealed, the nurses' station air quality improved dramatically.


A junior high school chemistry student could not participate in the laboratory sessions because the laboratory environment aggravated his asthma. He experienced shortness of breath just before entering the laboratory even when chemicals were not in use. The student did not have these symptoms in any other part of the school. The parents wanted their son to attend laboratory sessions and asked the school board to determine the cause of his complaints.

Members of the school board were familiar with fumes, vapors, gases, and ultra fine particles and the symptoms they can cause. I was asked to investigate the problem.

The outside air was surveyed first, and a level of 4000 particles/cm3 was found. Knowing that the school's HVAC filters had an efficiency rating of 30%, the anticipated reading of about 2870 was found throughout the building, except in the chemistry laboratory. Here, the UFP level was found to be 22,600. We then surveyed the entire laboratory, areas by area, and found the area near the chemical storage closet to have a UPF level of 85,600. This unventilated storage closet held several containers of corrosive acids, many with damaged caps. Acid vapors were leaking form these containers and condensing into ultra fine particles, then escaping from the closet.

The solution was simple. Stay in compliance with the OSHA Laboratory Standard-29CFR1910.1450.  Discard outdated bottles. Transfer the contents of the other containers to tightly sealed bottles, properly labeled in accordance with current GHS (Globally Harmonized System) standards, and store them in a properly ventilated storage cabinet. Once this was done, the UFP levels dropped to safe levels.


End users of a product are occasionally unhappy with the product's performance or time of durability.  In the areas of paints, coatings, and adhesives, a paint or coating may fade, blister, or crack shortly after its application or well before its expiration date.  An adhesive may also delaminate in random fashion.  Additionally, personal injury may result.  The first determination that must be made is whether the product failed (manufacturer's fault) or the application procedure or process was improper (installer's fault), or both.



A fortune 500 company was in the business of manufacturing and installing maintenance-free, exterior coatings on large scale commercial buildings, guaranteed to last 20 years. It was called an "outsulation system" because it also provided a layer of insulation to keep buildings warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer, thereby reducing energy costs. This company had been in business for over 30 years with an excellent reputation. The company made a decision to switch mesh suppliers to reduce costs and increase profits. The mesh was an integral part of their coating system. Within three years of the first installations with the new mesh, serious problems developed nationwide. The coating started to discolor, crack, and delaminate. No apparent cause could be found in the sudden failure of the product.

 I was asked to investigate and troubleshoot the source of the problems. Were all three problems related and traceable to a single source? Within six weeks, through extensive laboratory testing and analysis, the problem was diagnosed and traced to a single cause, i.e. a chemically defective mesh. The company had been using an inert, all fiberglass mesh of suitable thickness as the reinforcement substrate to support and hold the cementitious mixture in place.  To reduce costs, however, it decided to switch to a PVC mesh of equivalent thickness but with an added, off grade plasticizer to retain its flexibility.  PVC is a hard solid at room temperature, and a plasticizer must be added during synthesis to make it flexible.  Chemical analysis revealed that the plasticizer (itself low grade) was migrating out of the PVC mesh into the cementitious layer, destabilizing the adhesion and simultaneously leaving the mesh to become brittle.  The result was that outsulation system showed patterns of discoloration, developed alligator cracking, and ultimately delaminated.   Quality control had been compromised.

An out-of-court settlement was reached with the mesh supplier. Affected buildings were rehabilitated at the expense of the company, who also switched back to the original supplier of the mesh. A ten million dollar lawsuit was averted.


A family restaurant was sold and bought by a dedicated new owner. He wanted to upgrade the furniture and be sure it was kept clean. Current customers would appreciate that. It might attract new customers as well. He ordered new tables and chairs with stainless steel legs, frames, and supports at a very attractive price.

He also hired a new cleaning company. Their job was to come in every night after closing and clean up, wash down, and degrease everything. Normally, muriatic acid (the common name for hydrochloric acid) of select concentration is the degreasing agent of choice. Within a few weeks, the new owner discovered random rust spots on the metal frames of his newly bought furniture. He was furious.

He figured that there must be something the cleaning company is using that is too strong in the wrong cleaning agent. He decided to file a suit against them. But this cleaning company stood behind its cleaning products and process. No other restaurant that this cleaning company was servicing in the area was having similar problems.

I was retained to investigate the chemistry of the cleaning products being used. After a thorough review, it was found that the problem was with the metal used in the furniture. It was not stainless steel as the manufacturer had claimed. Stainless steel will not corrode or rust when treated with hydrochloric acid. But standard grade steel will. Indeed, the lawsuit should have been filed against the manufacturer of the restaurant furniture for selling goods under false pretenses. And this is exactly what was done.

This article discusses issues of general interest and does not give any specific legal or business advice pertaining to any specific circumstances.  Before acting upon any of its information, you should obtain appropriate advice from a lawyer or other qualified professional.

This article may not be duplicated, altered, distributed, saved, incorporated into another document or website, or otherwise modified without the permission of TASA.

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