If you work a full-time job, you spend a whole lot of hours in your office. And while it’s easy to blame feeling sick on the latest bug working its way through your co-workers, it might have to do with your workspace. The items you sit on, touch, or breathe in while you’re at work can cause scary side effects or long-term health problems. Here are five toxic items to watch for:
New carpet smell comes with serious side effects. “The most concerning part about office carpeting is what it’s treated with. Things like stain VOCs, and fluorinated chemicals, and then the adhesive used during the installation process can cause symptoms like nausea, headaches, breathing difficulties, and an allergic type reaction. It can also affect concentration and memory,” says Jeff Gearhart, the research director at HealthyStuff.org. “Some of these chemicals could cause long term health concerns like disruption of your endocrine system and reproductive health issues.”,
Gearhart recommends encouraging your office management to look into Green Seal products during any renovations.
Mold in the office ceiling tiles
That brown stain on the ceiling above your desk is more than just an eyesore—most likely, it’s a water stain. The problem? There’s water accumulating in the ceiling tiles, which can lead to the growth of mold, fungi, and bacteria. Exposure to dampness and mold has been associated with asthma, bronchitis, and respiratory infections, according to studies from the CDC. The risk is especially high for people with asthma or hypersensitivity pneumonitis, whose conditions may become more severe if exposure to the harmful conditions isn’t limited.
Inform the building manager immediately if you notice any water stains, leaks, or unusual dampness.
Dry erase markers
Dry erase markers contain a mixture of chemicals that may cause issues stemming from the use of methyl isobutyl ketone. The CDC states that inhalation can cause a variety of unpleasant symptoms, including dizziness, sore throat, vomiting, weakness, and loss of appetite. And while you might think that a few minutes a day won’t make a difference, just add them up over the course of years.
Fortunately, there’s an easy fix: Opt for PowerPoint for your next presentation, and type those project brainstorming notes.
Industrial cleaning supplies
The splatters in the microwave, the paper shreds on the floor, and the general dustiness of your cubicle are typically all taken care of by the cleaning crew after you leave your office. But do you know what cleaning supplies they’re using? Studies done by the Environmental Working Group found that “chemicals in many conventional cleaning supplies used in California schools have been linked to asthma, cancer, reproductive toxicity, hormone disruption, and neurotoxicity.” Even after cleaning, the study found, the chemical’s residue could be measured in the air and on surfaces—as well being detected in blood and urine.
Request that your company use a green cleaning service or switch to green cleaners in place of harsh industrial cleaners. These products work better—and they’re typically more economical, too, says Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group.
Flame retardants on furniture
It’s not just an interior design disaster—standard issue office furniture and electronics are frequently treated with chemicals. A report by the Center for Environmental Health found that “85% of couches tested contained toxic or untested flame retardants.” These chemical compounds are intended to delay the start of a fire—but they can also cause serious health issues like cancer, reduced IQ, developmental delays, obesity, and reproductive difficulties.
So, what can you do?
It’s simply not an option to avoid your workplace entirely. Instead, report problems—like leaks that could cause mold and bacteria—promptly. If you’re concerned about the air quality, request that management demonstrate that it falls within acceptable limits. “There are independent third parties who can measure the air quality for an affordable price,” says Lunder. Some companies may allow employees to work from home until the situation (construction, repairs, or mitigation) is completed or remedied, she adds.
Take up one simple habit: Wash your hands, and do it frequently. According to a study done at Boston University, this helps limit the chemicals making their way into your blood.
Finally, speak up! “Employees need to do their best to advocate for themselves,” says Lunder. “The best thing you can do is push for your company to purchase greener and less toxic materials for your office. It’s the most effective way to protect people.”