Sick Building Syndrome

Sick Building Syndrome Can Be Prevented

Woman blowing her nose who is sick
••• PeopleImages / Getty Images

The term "sick building syndrome" (SBS) is used to describe situations in which building occupants experience acute health issues and/or discomfort that appear to be linked to time spent in a building; with SBS, no specific illness or other source is identified.

The complaints may be localized in a particular room or zone or may be widespread throughout the building.

Symptoms of Sick Building Syndrome May Include:

  • Itchy, irritated, dry, or watery eyes
  • Nasal congestion
  • Throat soreness or tightness
  • Dry, itchy skin, or unexplained rashes
  • Headache, lethargy, or difficulty concentrating

Some building-related factors, such as high building temperature, poor ventilation, high humidity, and sealed windows, along with introducing conventional paints, coatings, and furnishings into the space can contribute to SBS.

Causes of Sick Building Syndrome

Inadequate Ventilation

Since the dawn of air conditioning and heating systems, building ventilation standards called for approximately 15 cubic feet per minute (cfm) of outside air for each building occupant.

However, thanks to the 1970s' oil crisis, national energy conservation measures called for a reduction in the amount of outdoor air provided for ventilation to 5 cfm per occupant to save energy.

While lower ventilation rates did save energy, in many cases, these reduced outdoor air ventilation rates were found to be inadequate to maintain the health and comfort of building occupants, and people started getting sick from buildings in droves. During this time, the trend was to incorporate sealed windows and not allow occupants to control the ventilation in their spaces.

The group that develops standards for heating ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) developed its ventilation standard to strike a balance between energy efficiency and adequate ventilation to prevent sickness. So, 20 plus years later, we are back to providing a minimum of 15 cfm of outdoor air per person and 20 cfm/person in office spaces.

Some spaces, depending on use, require more fresh air. Densely occupied spaces, such as gymnasiums, or high pollutant-use types, such as laboratories or smoking lounges (where do you even see these nowadays?), require ventilation rates of up to 60 cfm per occupant.

If you're really interested in this, take it up with your local mechanical engineer and/or spend some time with ASHRAE Standard 62 404.

Chemical Contaminants From Indoor Sources 

Have you ever considered that every paint, adhesive, carpet, upholstery, manufactured wood product, copy machine, pesticide, and cleaning agent brings a whole (unhealthy) host of chemicals into our spaces? We breathe these every day.

Toxins emitted from these products (unless they are certified as low-emitting by a third-party certification program) include volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including formaldehyde.

Smoking contributes high levels of VOCs, other toxic compounds, and respirable particulate matter. VOCs can cause chronic and acute health effects at high concentrations, and some are known carcinogens. Low to moderate levels of multiple VOCs may also produce acute reactions.

Combustion products, such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, as well as respirable particles, can come from unvented kerosene and gas space heaters, woodstoves, fireplaces and gas stoves. Eek! We are exposing ourselves to these toxins every single day.

Outdoor Chemical Contaminants

I previously witnessed smokers standing beside the outdoor air intake, blowing tobacco smoke straight into the "fresh air" system of the building. Think of the drive-through operator at McDonald's, and you've got yourself a perfect example of idling vehicles and people inside the window directly breathing chemical contaminants.

The outdoor air that enters a building can be a source of indoor air pollution. Pollutants can enter through plumbing vents, building exhausts, poorly located air intake vents, windows, and other openings. Also, combustion products can enter a building from a nearby garage: not good for our health!

Natural, Biological Toxins

Bacteria, molds, pollen, and viruses are types of biological contaminants. These contaminants may breed in stagnant water that has accumulated in ducts, humidifiers and drain pans, or where water has collected on ceiling tiles, carpeting, or insulation. Sometimes insects or bird droppings can be a source of biological contaminants.

Physical symptoms related to biological contamination include coughing, chest tightness, fever, chills, muscle aches, and allergic responses, such as mucous membrane irritation and upper respiratory congestion. One indoor bacterium, Legionella, has caused both Legionnaire's Disease and Pontiac fever.

These elements may act in combination and may supplement other complaints, such as inadequate temperature, humidity, or lighting. Even after a building investigation, however, the specific causes of the complaints may remain unknown.

So what is a guy or gal to do? The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) states that 52 percent of poor indoor quality cases are due to poor ventilation. The best method for preventing sick building syndrome is to improve the indoor air quality of the facility. Maintaining the air ventilation and filtration systems, removing contaminants (e.g., paint and solvents), using HEPA filters or air purifying machines, and/or replacing old systems with new energy-efficient HVAC systems are a few suggestions.

Indoor air has a high concentration of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC), increasing the risk of sick building syndrome. In addition to man-made solutions, there are also natural remedies. For example, plants absorb pollutants and use the toxins as food. Exposure to sunlight a few minutes per day increases the concentration of Vitamin D in the body, which absorbs calcium and minerals, as well as helps prevent ailments, depression, and diseases. Conducting regular air-quality checks is important for identifying potential hazards and the possible solutions that should be used to remove or control them.