What taskmaster would force a staff to labor among petroleum-based fibers dipped in dangerous compounds and cemented in place with poisonous adhesives? Just about every office in which conventional commercial carpeting is installed, notes Thomas Degnan, whose New York City interior-design firm, In Progress Environments, does its best to create toxin-free work spaces. Not only do synthetic carpets exude formaldehyde, a suspected carcinogen, but, Degnan laments, carpets of all stripes function as "huge sponges for dust and dander."

Thus Degnan opted for a lot of wood floors when he was assigned by $36-million health-care provider Curaflex Infusion Services to minimize pollutants in a regional suite of offices and labs. The local manager loved bare wood's appropriately aseptic surface and good looks but didn't appreciate its noise. Nonetheless, in Curaflex's upcoming move to larger quarters, Degnan opted for wood as much as possible, tempering its clatter with acoustical baffling, as in a concert hall.

Noxious spirits lurk elsewhere, too. Another worker-safety service, Dallas-based franchiser Ceiling Doctor, scrubs overhead tiles with an "environment-friendly" germicide to banish bacteria that otherwise thrive in heat trapped near ceilings. And yet more threats emanate invisibly from recirculated air (the "primary offender," says Degnan), plywood, room dividers stuffed with urea foam, and particleboard furniture.

Some pointers from In Progress Environments:

Carpets. Ask suppliers to air out a synthetic carpet for at least a week before installation. Use adhesives that are low in VOCs (volatile organic compounds) or are water-based. Better yet, tack carpets over natural jute padding.

Heating, Ventilation, Air-Conditioning (HVAC). Clean air doesn't come cheap: an upgraded HVAC system adds 15% to 20% to basic floor-space costs, Degnan estimates. Make sure systems meet industry guidelines for fresh-air intake year-round. (Some landlords shut that capability off in winter and summer.) Filtration circuits that actively remove particles by ionization are more effective than passive filters. Put vents in every office. Above all, ban smoking.

Lighting. Fluorescents are cheap and efficient, but they strain workers' eyes through flicker and glare, and by bleaching out colors. Use them only in combination with full-spectrum, color-corrected incandescents. In areas where people stare at VDTs, install indirect lighting.

Sight and Smell. Red fires up performance; green is soothing. While Japanese companies pump scents into HVACs to heighten worker energy, Degnan confines stimulation by aroma to vases of eucalyptus and mint.

-- Michael P. Cronin