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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Caution on Cubicles

Air Date: Week of

Sitting in a cubicle all day might not be the most healthy of office environments, and Kellyn Betts, senior editor of Environmental Science and Technology, found that in the 1980s, these seemingly innocuous cubes posed a potential health risk. She talks with host Steve Curwood about the hazards of a typical cubicle.


CURWOOD: Fans of Dilbert, the hapless office drone created by comic strip artist Scott Adams might identify with the environment in which the character is forced to work. Windowless grey cubicles, spaced end to end in a virtual cube farm. In the real world, this layout may not be far from the truth, and it’s easy to see how some worker bees might suffer from cubicle coma. In many cases, a cup of coffee will do the trick. But as Kellyn Betts, of "Environmental Science and Technology" magazine found, the materials in a typical cubicle have been known to have serious health effects. Kellyn Betts, hello.


CURWOOD: So now tell me, what’s the low down and dirty on the chemicals or components that are in typical cubes.

BETTS: Well, if you’re in an older cube, the people I interviewed for my article acknowledge that it could have been contributing to the problems that were associated with sick building syndrome because no one thought about cubicle emissions until the late ‘70s, or early 1980s after the energy crisis. And it was the energy crisis that inspired both businesses and homeowners to seal up their buildings so that they wouldn’t have to pay as much to heat them.

CURWOOD: Uh-huh.

BETTS: And that also sealed in all the toxic emissions.

CURWOOD: Ew, so what was in those old things?

BETTS: Well, there was a lot of formaldehyde and, in fact, there still is a fair bit of formaldehyde. But there are also chlorinated volatile organic compounds such as trichloethylene and perchloethylene and there were other volatile organic compounds like 1-4-dioxane, naphthalene and benzene and all of these volatile organic compounds are regulated as hazardous air pollutants in outdoor air.

CURWOOD: So, where did all these things come from in cubicles?

BETTS: Well, they were coming from various components of the cubicles themselves, mainly from the particle board which, as you probably know, is like sawdust glued together.

CURWOOD: Uh-huh.

BETTS: …and sandwiched between thin pieces of wood. But also from the coatings, the varnishes, the fiberglass, the textiles, the fabrics, adhesives, and the finishes on the cubicles.

CURWOOD: I understand that even EPA employees complained about working in sick cubicles?

BETTS: Yes, they’re in the Waterside Mall Headquarters in Washington DC. People complained that the building was making them sick and there was a law settlement that actually necessitated the official testing of the cubicles that were used in that building, as well as its carpeting and then I guess an analysis of the ventilation system. And that’s actually what some of the first cubicle tests resulted from. It was a very high profile lawsuit.

CURWOOD: And what kind of ailments would people get from these toxic cubes?

BETTS: That’s a good question. They were blamed for headaches, fatigue, coughs, scratchy throats, sinus infections, and cancers. I actually spoke with an employee who had worked in the building at the time who said that an extraordinary number of people died young. There was no way to prove that it was associated with the building, but it really seemed extraordinary, he said.

CURWOOD: So, how did their conditions improve?

BETTS: I think they moved out of the building. That’s my understanding, that they no longer occupy that building.

CURWOOD: So, how’s cubicle composition changed since the 1980s then?

BETTS: Well, actually, the main composition of cubicles hasn’t changed that much. But what has changed is the way that the various coatings, varnishes, fiberglasses, textiles, fabrics, adhesives, finishes, and particle board that go into the cubicles are constructed. So, for example, in the ‘80s they used to use hydrocarbon-based adhesives and those were associated with chlorinated volatile organic compounds which are considered some of the nastiest ones and now they use more water-based adhesives. The particle board still has these formaldehyde urea resins, but it’s much more well filled in and there are alternatives that are based upon wheat and these wheat board products that are, instead of the sawdust that’s glued together to make particle board, they use old straw and that is associated with near zero emissions. There is now really a marketing advantage to having green products and there are now companies that certify the emissions level of products of all kinds including office cubicles and that’s how we can say for certain that the levels of toxic compounds coming off cubicles have gone down.

CURWOOD: Now, some would say the healthiest kind of office, of course, would do away with the cube altogether.


CURWOOD: Any moves toward a cubeless office?

BETTS: Not that I’m aware of, but I’d support it.

CURWOOD: Kellyn Betts is senior editor of "Environmental Science and Technology" magazine in Washington D.C. Kellyn, thanks for taking this time with me.

BETTS: Thank you.




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