Sick building syndrome sounds made up, but it’s not. It’s a major health concern that can affect workers and occupants in new or poorly ventilated buildings.
When a series of non-specific but life-affecting symptoms occur in occupants of a building, it might be sick building syndrome.
What is it?
Airborne contaminants that are localized or spread across an entire building can cause a number of acute symptoms that characterize sick building syndrome. The most common are headaches, dizziness, nausea, irritation, and dry cough, but long-term effects include skin conditions, difficulty concentrating, flu-like symptoms, asthma attacks, even personality changes.
A key factor in determining sick building syndrome is whether complainants report relief after leaving the building. While neurotoxins may still be present and linger for a long period of time, in most cases the symptoms resolve themselves when exposure ceases.
Since sick building syndrome is caused by a number of different contaminants, specific symptoms are key in determining the exact source of the issue.
There are a variety of contaminants that can contribute to sick building syndrome, both from indoor and outdoor sources.
Outdoor sources include: car exhaust, bathroom or kitchen exhausts, combustion byproducts, radon, formaldehyde, asbestos, dust, and lead paint. These can all cause health problems that are exacerbated by poor building ventilation.
Indoor sources include: adhesives, upholstery, carpeting, work machines, pesticides, and cleaning agents—essentially all materials that contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can easily become gases or vapors and impact air quality. The issue isn’t with the VOCs, but that they aren’t being adequately filtered through a building’s ventilation system.
Biological contaminants like pollen, bacteria, viruses, fungus and mold can also be recirculated and inhaled by building occupants, causing high rates of cluster sickness and localized illness. Insect or bird droppings should be monitored and remedied as quickly as possible, since they can also cause issues.
Sick building syndrome can be an early indication of Legionnaire’s disease (or the similar Pontiac fever), which is an atypical type of pneumonia. If humidifiers or cooling towers are contaminated with legionella organisms, then building residents may be inhaling these organisms.
Non-specific contaminated water vapour may also lead to issues, as it can cause “humidifier fever” (sometimes called “Monday fever”). Heavy contamination can lead to respiratory infections, asthma, and flu-like symptoms. The incidence of this sickness is surprisingly high and often occurs in clusters within a single building or workplace.
Other workplace factors
Even airborne contaminants like synthetic fragrances or cooking fumes can cause sick building syndrome. Locating a specific source of the illness can be difficult, but it’s essential to adequately treating and rehabilitating those who are afflicted.
For most workplaces, recognizing that there’s a problem can be challenging. Collective symptoms are subtle. Increased absenteeism, lower productivity, and reduced mood and morale among coworkers might all indicate that something’s wrong with the air.
Job-related stress, pre-existing illnesses or allergies, job dissatisfaction, and psychosocial factors are all exacerbated by sick building syndrome. This makes SBS an insidious problem. Employers may know of a pre-existing condition, or see that an employee is struggling with problems at home, but may not understand that the building is a key contributing factor.
Likelihood of incidence
Women are more likely to experience sick building syndrome, and managers or other higher-ups are less likely. The exact correlation isn’t known. Some suggest that, in the past, women were more likely to work in administrative or secretarial roles, and these positions were often centralized, away from windows. Others suggest that women recognize symptoms earlier, and seek help more often. Other factors may include weight, as it would take a lower concentration to elicit symptoms in someone who weighs less, or being close to machines like microwaves and computers.
Discovering and managing SBS
In the 1970s, designers started to construct buildings that were more airtight in order to improve energy efficiency. Ventilation in some buildings was as low as 5 cfm/person (cubic feet per minute). Occupants very quickly discovered health problems and malfunctioning HVAC systems made it even worse. New standards recommend minimum outdoor airflow of 15 cfm/person, even more in spaces with a higher concentration of people, and up to 60 cfm/person in indoor smoking areas.
The occupational health and safety resource centre at Western University has devised a routine survey to use when investigating air quality complaints.
- A walk-through inspection to look for sources of contamination, such as photocopiers, insulation and cleaning materials,
- Measurement of temperature, humidity, air movement and other comfort parameters,
- Measurement of carbon dioxide to assess the ventilation efficiency,
- Measurement of formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, ozone and respirable particles and
- Examination of the ventilation system for causes of poor distribution, including tests for biological organisms in any water in the system.
After acknowledging that SBS may be a problem, employers should hire a professional to ensure that heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems are meeting health standards and local building codes. Air may need to be directly vented outside, or an effective contaminant-removing air purifier may need to be installed.
Hydroxyl radicals are naturally occurring, highly reactive molecules that oxidize with many VOCs and compounds that cause sick building syndrome. These air cleaners are the reason our outdoor air is breathable. Using a hydroxyl generator indoors and ensuring proper ventilation removes these contaminants and can drastically reduce symptoms.
Otherwise, removal of the contamination source, like an outdated humidifier or water-stained ceiling tiles, should be top priority. Education and workplace communication can also contribute to informed employees and help with any air quality management program.
If you’re curious about developing an air quality management program to address your specific needs or would like to learn more about hydroxyls, please contact one of our Odorox experts.