Pandemic … plus: Indoor environment firm’s latest work isn’t just about COVID cleanup, it’s about unexpected side effects

What does it mean to be one of the only regional firms with someone certified by the American Board of Industrial Hygiene on staff before the pandemic?

Well, for Indoor Environmental Concepts Inc., it probably didn’t hurt.

But, when you can boast that today … the Runnemede-based firm posted revenue last year that doubled its numbers from prior years, if that’s any indication of how valuable it might be.

And, while it may not come as a surprise that sanitization of industrial properties, as well as public and commercial real estate, was direly needed during the heights of the pandemic, there have been some unforeseen consequences of the shutdowns last year that will keep the firm’s work in-demand, even with COVID-19 cases on the decline.

Robert DeMalo, who leads Indoor Environmental Concepts as a partner, alongside Michael Menz, said his firm transitioned into consulting property owners on what they needed to do to better protect people in buildings from infectious diseases last year. The firm had focused primarily on investigations of asbestos, mold and other environmental contaminants at real estate sites.

Some of the demand for those consultations has begun to taper off, DeMalo said, but there are new problems in the pipeline for properties that went dark last year. …

“If these buildings went vacant and water wasn’t being used regularly, the water sat stagnant in all the pipes, and those conditions allow for a biofilm to build up in pipes that can be a breeding ground for Legionella bacteria,” he said. “And, with water sitting, there’s also increased contact time that can allow lead to be leached out of pipes before it’s flushed again.”

Legionella, which naturally occurs in water and soil, can cause a form of pneumonia, Legionnaires’ disease, when it’s inhaled. There are a number of health effects from being exposed to lead in water.

Due to confidentiality agreements with clients, DeMalo couldn’t get too specific — but, he did see increased levels of lead and Legionella bacteria detected in water systems in a few different properties that were largely out of commission during the pandemic.

The remedy for both requires a lot of flushing of the property’s water system — as well as maintaining hotter water temperatures for the bacteria — and sometimes results in the need for most costly repairs, such as physical removal of certain pipes or joints.

Indoor Environmental Concepts works with commercial, industrial and public properties, including schools. Educational institutions have been a key clientele for the company as it pivoted to evaluations of the pandemic-readiness of air filtration systems and training on health measures that were in line with state and federal regulations.

Among all those clients, there’s a new interest in shoring up health priorities as well as water quality — something DeMalo suspects is the next big trend, as more is discovered about contaminants such as perfluorooctanoic acid, a chemical used in the manufacturing process of products such as Teflon.

It’s a mouthful … that you wouldn’t want in your mouth. More is being learned about how something like the very widespread perfluorooctanoic acid is potentially harmful to health in high concentrations in drinking water.

There’s also a new emphasis on health and indoor air quality levels among properties looking to achieve the new WELL Building Standard, a complimentary certification process to the U.S. Green Building Council’s eco-friendly LEED program.

That’s all to say DeMalo and his business partner are going to remain busy long after they’ve seen the last of a spike in revenue from helping owners of real estate bring people back indoors safely. The work of looking for hazards in a physical environment involves more than identifying potential pandemic pitfalls.

However, DeMalo does expect that commercial businesses and other property owners are going to be fine-tuning their indoor environments with consultants and assessments of pandemic-preparedness for as long as COVID-19’s interruptions are remembered.

“It’s a niche business that’s going to stay,” he said. “People are so much more aware of transmission of disease — whether it’s something like COVID or just the common cold. We know everyone’s attention, knowledge and sensibilities are going to be focused on this moving forward.”