Museums are host to some of the most priceless artifacts of our culture, but the air quality within museums is not always of a high enough quality to ensure their preservation. Indoor air pollutants in museums can damage museum artifacts, affect the life of the artifact as airborne contaminants can physically break down the artifact components and affect the health of those who work in or visit them. How can museums protect both the health of people and the integrity of their exhibits by cutting down on levels of indoor air pollutants?
Air Pollutants Found within Museums
Air pollutants found within museums include dust, mold, dirt, dead skin cells, ozone, chemical cleaners, varnish, and solvents. All of these air pollutants can damage collections in the museum as well as the health of visitors.
“Dust and dirt tracked in from outside can contaminate fragile exhibits. A large amount of indoor dust comes from dead skin cells, which can come from both visitors and museum staff,” explains Camfil’s Charlie Seyffer, Manager of Marketing & Technical Materials and 37-year ASHRAE member and active committee participant. “Mold can develop in damp areas such as basements and bathrooms. Because mold spreads via spores, it can infect other areas and damage exhibits. Mold can even develop inside of ventilation systems if the ventilation systems are improperly installed and exposed to water.” (1)
Ozone is probably the most critical contaminant of concern in these facilities as it is nature’s cleaning agent. Ozone breaks down or oxidizes items disintegrating them over a period of time. In most museums, special air filtration with activated carbon is used to remove this gaseous contaminant from the air.
Chemical cleaners are also a common source of indoor air pollutants. While intended to clean up surfaces, chemical cleaners do release a large number of chemical particles into the air, which is why the labels on cleaners usually advise using them in well-ventilated areas. Chemical cleaners like chlorine bleach, aerosol sprays, and detergents can all release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as well as other toxic substances.
Varnishes and paints used to paint walls, tables and other furniture in museums can also release VOCs. Even paints and painting material used to restore or protect exhibits can damage other exhibits if not properly controlled.
Why Air Quality Within Museums Matters
Air quality within museums matters because poor air quality within museums can damage exhibits. Museums are often home to priceless artifacts and collections that can be irreparably harmed by exposure to airborne toxins and pollutants.
Frequently, museum exhibits are stored in areas that are not controlled for airborne pollutants. These airborne pollutants can easily come to rest in the display cases or in storage units that hold museum exhibits. Once pollutants become stuck in a case along with an exhibit they can cause significant degradation and deterioration of the exhibit.
“Museums are often homes to fragile objects like sculptures, paintings, historical objects, and books. Particulate matter pollution is typically abrasive and can damage collections by wearing away at paints and paper,” says Camfil’s Seyffer. (2)
Another important aspect to consider is the health of visitors to the museum as well as museum staff. Both inorganic and organic air pollutants can harm the health of people who breathe them.
Exposure to air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide can easily trigger asthma attacks in those sensitive to these pollutants. Continuous exposure to these dioxides can also lead to the development of cardiovascular diseases and decrease overall lung function. Particulate pollution and volatile organic compounds can cause both cause heart and lung damage from constant exposure, and it is believed that exposure to particulate pollution can damage the central nervous system and lead to an increased risk for lung cancer.
Improving Air Quality within Museums
Because of the damage that air pollutants can do to people’s health as well as the integrity of museum exhibits, it is important to reduce air pollutants wherever possible and improve air quality within museums. Improving air quality within museums can be accomplished by combining source control and filtration tactics.
Source control is one of the most effective ways to combat air pollutants, as it involves stopping the emission of air pollutants at their source. Museums should be regularly cleaned of dust and dirt, and whenever possible cleaning should be done with eco-friendly cleaners that release fewer volatile compounds into the air. Museum bathrooms, ventilation systems, basements and anywhere else moisture could accumulate should be regularly checked for the presence of mold. Painting and maintenance should be done with care and attention to practices that can release particles, like using painting methods that eliminate aerosols.
Source control should be combined with particulate and gaseous filtration for maximum effectiveness. Particulate filtration involves removing harmful particles out of the air with the use of high-efficiency air filters employed in the HVAC systems. Gaseous filtration typically involves another stage of filtration in the HVAC system that incorporates activated carbon.
“Particular attention should be paid to museum storage buildings, which often suffer from low air exchange rates,” saysSeyfferat Camfil. “Having a high air exchange rate is important as it dilutes the concentration of indoor air pollutants like organic acids. The exception to this is that levels of outdoor air pollutants can increase, coming in from outside the building, due to high air exchange rates.” (3)
A consultation should be conducted to determine the optimal air exchange rate of the museum storage building, and if high air exchange rates are necessary, then control methods like filtration should be utilized to reduce levels of air pollutants that penetrate the building or may be brought in from the outside.
It is important for the health of both visitors and museum staff, as well as for the preservation of our history, that air quality within museums be kept as high as possible. All feasible methods of limiting emissions of indoor air pollutants and filtering pollutants out of the air should be employed.
If you work in a museum, consult with Camfil to understand how you can achieve a safe environment for museum assets, visitors and employees. Camfil can provide you with the filters necessary to remove the indoor air pollutants that threaten air quality within museums, ensuring the health of your visitors and protecting your exhibits.