Sick Building Syndrome

Does going to work make you sick? Some people think it could be due to the air and the others due to the people. This is a controversial condition that presents with numerous non-specific symptoms that occur while you are in the building and get better after you have left the building. The shortlist includes irritated ears, nose, throat, and fatigue, headache and reduced concentration.

The full definition of sick building syndrome is that of an illness associated with the indoor environment where the symptoms and non specific causes of the symptoms are unknown. So by definition, like any other syndrome, there is no cause for this condition.

Once a cause is found then it is no longer called sick building syndrome. An example of this could be an illness that you can get from being in a building like Legionnaires disease, which is an infection that you can catch from the air conditioning system.

The full symptom list, in addition to the ones already mentioned, can include the following:

  • Mental fatigue
  • Reduced memory
  • Drowsiness
  • Reduced concentration
  • Dizziness
  • A feeling of intoxication
  • Nausea
  • Odour or taste complaints
  • Runny nose and eyes
  • Asthma type symptoms.

Up to 30% of office workers get this condition. Apparently in most normal buildings, 10-20% of workers will complain of non specific symptoms that fit with this condition anyway. It is an elevated incidence of symptoms, generally 30-70% that will attract the label of sick building syndrome to a building.

The background of this condition is that it was in the 1970s that these cases first came to light. In 1984 the world health organisation said that up to 30% of office workers suffer from sick building syndrome.

With the increased need to economise and the invention of new building techniques and materials, as well as air conditioning, there has been an increase in sick building syndrome cases.

In Europe where buildings were built well before 1961, these older buildings carry only a 5% incidence of sick building syndrome – these buildings are mainly made of stone and are not mechanically ventilated.

The buildings that usually suffer from sick building syndrome are usually office buildings.

The people who are more likely to get this condition include women, those who are undergoing life stress, those who have a poor lifestyle like smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise. In addition, there are situations like stress at work, the person’s personality and use of computers that have been associated with this condition.

Chemical and building causes can include the following - indoor chemicals include adhesives, carpeting, upholstery, manufactured wood products like chipboard, photocopies, pesticides, cleaning compounds.

It can also include formaldehyde and combustion products like carbon monoxide and nitric oxide. There are also breathable particles that can all come from unvented kerosene and gas space heaters, wood stoves, fireplaces and gas stoves.

Outdoor air that enters the building can come from car exhaust fumes, plumbing vents and building exhausts like bathroom and kitchen smells.

Biological contaminants that have been implicated can include bacteria, moulds, pollen and viruses – they can breed in stagnant water in ducts, humidifiers and where water has collected on ceiling tiles, carpeting or insulation. In addition, the house dust mite, proteins shed by people, pets or pests can sometimes be implicated. Sometimes insects or bird droppings can be involved.

Building characteristics that can make all of the above things worse would include a situation where the building was completely sealed and air conditioned. In addition, where there is poor building maintenance and low ventilation. Dampness and mould is an issue, as is excessive building occupancy – over crowding.

Computers have been found to emit phenol, toluene, 2-ethyl hexanol, formaldehyde and styrene. They also emit light and electromagnetic radiation.

The solution to sick building syndrome would be to deal with all the problems above. The first area would be to remove the source of pollution or modify the systems affecting pollution. This would involve good maintenance and cleaning of air conditioners, installing indoor plants, paying attention to water logged carpet and ceilings, and prohibiting smoking. It is important to vent any exhausts to the outside, as is paying important attention to the storage of any chemicals, paints or solvents. It is also important to allow a new or reconditioned building plenty of time to vent off any gases of chemicals before it is occupied.

Other areas that are important would include increasing ventilation rates and air distribution in the building, good maintenance and cleaning of air conditioners and filters, as well as educating and communicating with the occupants.

Everybody needs to participate in preventing sick building syndrome, starting from the initial design and building stage. The design of the building and the location of vents, air conditioners and exhausts are important.

The owner/occupier needs to ensure adequate system maintenance and air intake, good maintenance and consideration of what chemicals are used for cleaning, disinfection and pest control within the building.

The tenants or occupants of the building need to consider the occupant density and to avoid bringing in new sources of chemicals, microbes or pollutions. Last but not least, there needs to be positive labour – management relations and a good positive organisational culture and management programme within the workforce.

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