Sick Building Syndrome

Is work making you sick?

Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) refers to a collection of symptoms, such as headaches, nausea, fatigue, irritation of the eyes, nose, skin and throat, neurotoxin reactions and allergies among others, that are caused by a lack of adequate building ventilation. Respiratory illnesses can also result from SBS including edema, coughing, congestion, occupational asthma, chest pain and shortness of breath. The most commonly reported SBS symptoms are lethargy (57%), blocked noses (46%), headaches (46%) and trouble breathing (9%). SBS will lead to increased absenteeism, reduced productivity and job satisfaction and high staff turnover. Up to 30% of new buildings can cause sick building syndrome in occupants.

The large range of symptoms, as well as the fact that occupants of the building may display different symptoms which persist after they have left the building, makes SBS difficult to diagnose. If the incidence of illness increases among occupants of a building, and some of them do feel some relief of symptoms when they leave the building, you may need to check your indoor air quality.

The term ‘sick building syndrome’ was coined in the 1970’s when oil embargoes led to increased building insulation without a corresponding improvement in ventilation systems. As insulation and building envelopes become more advanced, natural flow of air through buildings is impeded. This can result in poor indoor air quality. In some cases, the air quality inside a city building may be 2 to 5 times worse than outdoor air quality. Many building materials such as PVC, some paints, carpets, finishes etc. can release volatile organic compounds (VOC) which exacerbate health problems. Chemical pollutants and biological pollutants such as viruses, bacteria, pollen, dust mites and mould spores play a part in SBS symptoms. Biological pollutants are more likely to cause symptoms of allergic reactions such as sneezing, respiratory issues and congestion. Mould and poorly ventilated exhaust gases can lead to allergic reactions that result in long-term health problems.

Green building design should strive to avoid sick building syndrome from the outset. You can help to maintain indoor air quality with regular HVAC maintenance. Cleaning filters and ducts will remove pollutants and mould. Mould needs to be professionally removed and the area sealed to prevent the recurrence of growth. There is no substitute for adequate building ventilation. Although many of these systems may be used in conjunction with comprehensive building ventilation to improve air quality, good ventilation is key. Buildings without natural ventilation are twice as likely to induce SBS symptoms as buildings which utilize natural ventilation. Poor lighting (usually involving fluorescents), bad ergonomics and noise pollution will intensify SBS symptoms.

Improvements to your building which can help to alleviate the symptoms of SBS include the implementation of adequate outside exhaust ventilation. Limit and remove the quantity of VOCs and other chemical substances that may add to the deterioration of indoor air quality. Improve indoor ventilation by installing a new HVAC system. You can also use filters and air purifiers to remove pollutants and particles from the air. Gaseous pollutants can be reduced with the use of absorbent beds.

Removal of VOC producing carpets, paints, furniture and building materials will also help to improve indoor air quality. Switching to natural cleaners and removing chemical substances will also reduce chemical pollutants in the air.

If you suspect that the building you are living or working in may be making you sick, contact a professional to carry out an environmental health inspection. The indoor air quality will be tested and the causes of SBS identified. The inspector can also make recommendations on which air purifying techniques are most suited to your unique situation.

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