Workers complain of not feeling well while at work, but it’s been observed that the symptoms clear up after they leave. Chances are they’re not allergic to their job, but may be suffering from an occupational health risk known as Sick Building Syndrome.
What is Sick Building Syndrome?
Sick building syndrome (SBS) is used to describe situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified. A 1984 World Health Organization report suggested up to 30% of new and remodeled buildings worldwide may be subject of complaints related to poor indoor air quality.
Sick building causes are frequently pinned down to flaws in the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. Other causes have been attributed to contaminants produced by outgassing of some types of building materials, volatile organic compounds (VOC), molds improper exhaust ventilation of ozone (byproduct of some office machinery), light industrial chemicals used within, or lack of adequate fresh-air intake/air filtration.
Symptoms of SBS
Typically the symptoms of SBS include: sensory irritation or soreness of the eyes, nose, throat; neurotoxic or general health problems; lethargy, skin irritation; nonspecific hypersensitivity reactions; sensitivity to odors, infectious diseases; and taste sensations.
However, The World Health Organization has classified the reported symptoms into broad categories, including:
– mucous membrane irritation (eye, nose, and throat irritation),
-neurotoxic effects (headaches, fatigue, and irritability),
-asthma and asthma-like symptoms (chest tightness and wheezing),
-skin dryness and irritation,
-gastrointestinal complaints and more
Part of the difficulty in recognizing SBS is that all of these symptoms could be attributed to other common ailments and illnesses. Several sick occupants may report individual symptoms which do not appear to be connected. The key to discovery is the increased incidence of illnesses in general with onset or exacerbation within a fairly close time frame—usually within a period of weeks. In most cases, SBS symptoms will be relieved soon after the occupants leave the particular room or zone. However, there can be lingering effects of various neurotoxins, which may not clear up when the occupant leaves the building. In some cases—particularly in sensitive individuals—there can be long-term health effects. Note that If symptoms improve when you are away from the building, it might be the building that’s sick and not you.
Causes of SBS?
SBS cannot be traced to a specific cause, but is most likely due to a combination of factors. It seems to occur more frequently in buildings that are sealed off from the outside environment. If the windows cannot be opened, the only ventilation is through a heating or air conditioning system. That may not be enough ventilation to let germs out of the building.
Another factor could be objects within the building that slowly release chemicals into the air. Potential hazards include glues and adhesives, foam padding from chairs, photocopiers, cleaning chemicals, and certain wood products. Tobacco smoke greatly reduces indoor air quality. Outdoor chemicals could also contribute to SBS if the ventilation system takes in air from outside the building.
Other possible factors include: temperature inside the building that is too high or low or fluctuates rapidly, humidity, noise, poor lighting, and airborne dust particles.
How to prevent SBS
- You can help yourself by putting a plant next to your desk. A plant will release oxygen and take in carbon dioxide from your work area, naturally cleansing the air. Plant toxin-absorbing plants, such as sansevieria (Common names include mother-in-law’s tongue, devil’s tongue, jinn’s tongue, bow string hemp, snake plant and snake tongue) will do.
- Roof shingle non-pressure cleaning for removal of algae, mold, and Gloeocapsa magma (this particular type of cyanobacteria is responsible for creating black stains and streaks on roofs)
- Using ozone to eliminate the many sources, such as VOC, molds, mildews, bacteria, viruses, and even odors however numerous studies identify High-ozone shock treatmentas ineffective despite commercial popularity and popular belief.
- Replacement of water-stained ceiling tiles and carpeting.
- Use of paints, adhesives, solvents, and pesticides in well-ventilated areas and use of these pollutant sources during periods of non-occupancy.
- Increasing the number of air exchanges; the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers recommend a minimum of 8.4 air exchanges per 24-hour period.
- Proper and frequent maintenance of HVAC systems.
- UV-C light in the HVAC plenum.
- Installation of HVAC Air Cleaning systems or devices to remove VOC’s, bioeffluents (people odors) from HVAC systems conditioned air.
- Regular vacuuming with a HEPA filter vacuum cleaner to collect and retain 99.97% of particles down to and including 0.3 micrometers.
Gender difference has been observed in reporting rates of sick building syndrome because women tend to report more symptoms than men do. Along with this, some studies have found that women have a more responsive immune system and are more prone to mucosal dryness and facial redness.
Employers have a legal responsibility to prevent work-related accidents and poor health, including SBS. If you suspect your sickness is due to SBS, contact your human resources department. A building that is properly ventilated, cleaned, and maintained will greatly reduce the risk of SBS.
Remember, almost everyone who works in a building every day is at risk. Being aware of Sick Building Syndrome is the first step toward finding a solution for yourself and your coworkers.