Growing up in Southern California, I recall countless days of not being allowed to play outdoors because of dangerously high levels of smog in the air. This health threat, known to the locals as a third-stage smog alert, was so extreme that the government issued warnings to stay indoors and limit movement as much as possible. Eventually, public outcry forced more stringent oversight on industrial pollutants released into the atmosphere. As a result, air quality began to improve.

Now, in the first part of the 21st century, the topic of air quality has returned to the forefront, but concerns have shifted from outdoor air pollution to indoor air. The new health concern is volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and they should be on the radar of operators of fitness facilities just as much as homeowners and landlords of office buildings.

VOCs are carbon-based organic chemicals (formaldehyde, styrene, chloride and toluene) that can easily evaporate and get into the air at room temperature. VOCs are found in a number of items: building materials, indoor furnishings, cleaning supplies, office supplies. VOCs also are found in a number of processes: printing, interior renovations and cleaning. Recent attention on VOCs stem from many scientists linking global warming at least partially to VOCs and from a sudden rise in “sick building syndrome” within the office environment, which many link to VOC levels.

People may come into contact with chemicals in three basic ways: ingestion, absorption and inhalation. When we talk about VOCs, we are referring to inhalation of the gaseous form of the chemical. Health risks associated with high levels of VOCs include acute issues, such as eye, nose and throat irritation; nausea and loss of coordination. If exposed over a long period of time, VOCs can damage the kidney, liver and nervous system.

The health issues associated with these chemicals are compounded by the fact that:

1. People spend the majority of their time indoors.
2. Studies from the EPA show that VOCs may be up to hundreds of times higher indoors than outdoors.
3. At any given time, hundreds of VOCs may be in the air.
4. Many of the VOCs are odorless, making detection difficult.

This issue is important to club operators because any unhealthy air within the gym is compounded by the fact that inhalation rates increase while exercising, which results in increased exposure. Also, many of the building materials used in the gym environment normally contain high levels of VOCs. Gyms are notorious for having poor HVAC systems that fail to properly circulate fresh air. Since health clubs require constant upkeep, the cleaning products that can contain VOCs are used more often for building maintenance.

Decreasing levels of VOCs within the gym can be achieved through the two phases of design and maintenance. During the design phase, care must be taken to use no or low VOC products, such as the paint, plywood, carpet, floor finishes and furniture. This holds true for products used during the maintenance phase, too. Look for cleaning products from companies that certify that their products meet strict chemical emission levels. If you have a stockpile of cleaning products, you can pull the material safety data sheet (MSDS) to check VOC levels.

Products that do contain some levels of VOCs should be tightly sealed, stored away from members and used only after hours. Products not used should be disposed of properly. During operating hours, make sure that the HVAC system is operating properly and that the proper air exchange rates are constantly supplying fresh air indoors.

Creating and maintaining healthy indoor air is important for both the environment and the inhabitants, and doing so requires controlling VOCs. Whether you are designing a space and can incorporate no/low VOC products or whether you own an existing facility where you can make simple changes in cleaning supply choices/HVAC control, the time is never too late to adopt a healthy air operating procedure.

Kurt Broadhag, MS, CSCS, LEED AP, is a fitness professional with more than 15 years of experience in personal training and club design. He is president of both K Allan Consulting, a firm specializing in health club design and management, and 23D Gym Design, which develops both two- and three-dimensional fitness center layouts. Broadhag can be reached by e-mail at kbroadhag@kallanconsulting.com.