Sick Building Syndrome
What Is Sick Building Syndrome?
Sick building syndrome
(SBS) is a situation in which occupants of a building experience acute
health effects that seem to be linked to time spent in a building, but
no specific illness or cause can be identified. The complaints may be
localized in a particular room or zone, or may be widespread throughout
result when a building is operated or maintained in a manner that is
inconsistent with its original design or prescribed operating procedures.
Sometimes indoor air problems are a result of poor building design or
What Are the Symptoms of SBS?
Building occupants complain
of symptoms associated with acute discomfort. These symptoms include
headaches; eye, nose, and throat irritation; a dry cough; dry or itchy
skin; dizziness and nausea; difficulty in concentrating; fatigue; and
sensitivity to odors. With SBS, no clinically defined disease or specific
chemical or biological contaminant can be determined as the cause of
the symptoms. Most of the complainants feel relief soon after leaving
SBS reduces worker productivity
and may also increase absenteeism.
What Causes SBS?
While specific causes
of SBS remain unknown, the following have been cited as contributing
factors to sick building syndrome. These elements may act in combination
or may supplement other complaints such as inadequate temperature, humidity,
- Chemical contaminants
from outdoor sources: Outdoor air that enters a building can also be
a source of indoor pollution. Pollutants from motor vehicle exhausts,
plumbing vents, and building exhausts (bathrooms and kitchens) can
enter the building through poorly located air intake vents, windows,
and other openings. Combustion byproducts can also enter a building
from a nearby garage.
- Chemical contaminants
from indoor sources: Most indoor air pollution comes from sources inside
the building. For example, adhesives, upholstery, carpeting, copy machines,
manufactured wood products, cleaning agents and pesticides may emit
volatile organic compounds (VOCs) including formaldehyde. Research
shows that some 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 in some individuals. Environmental
tobacco smoke and combustion products from
stoves, fireplaces, and unvented space heaters all can put chemical
contaminants into the air.
contaminants: Biological contaminants include pollen, bacteria,
viruses, and molds. These contaminants can breed in stagnant water
that has accumulated in humidifiers, drain pans, and ducts, or where
water has collected on ceiling tiles, insulation, or carpet. Biological
contaminants can cause fever, chills, cough, chest tightness, muscle
aches, and allergic reactions. One indoor air bacterium, Legionella,
has caused both Pontiac Fever and Legionnaires Disease.
- Inadequate ventilation:
In the 1970s the oil embargo led building designers to make buildings
more airtight, with less outdoor air ventilation, in order to improve
energy efficiency. These reduced ventilation rates have been found
to be, in many cases, inadequate to maintain the health and comfort
of building occupants.
What Are the Solutions
to Sick Building Syndrome?
Solutions to SBS problems
usually include combinations of the following measures:
- Increasing the ventilation
rates and air distribution is often a cost-effective means of reducing
indoor pollutant levels. At a minimum, heating, ventilating, and air
conditioning (HVAC) systems should be designed to meet ventilation
standards in local building codes. Make sure that the system is operated
and maintained to ensure that the design ventilation rates are attained.
If possible, the HVAC system should be operated to the American Society
of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) Standard
62-1989. If there are strong pollutant sources, air may need to be
vented directly to the outside. This method is especially recommended
to remove pollutants that accumulate in specific areas such as restrooms,
copy rooms, and printing facilities.
- Removal or modification
of the pollutant source is the most effective approach to solving a
known source of an indoor air quality problem when this solution is
practicable. Ways to do this include routine maintenance of HVAC systems;
replacing water-stained ceiling tiles and carpets; banning smoking
or providing a separately ventilated room; venting contaminant source
emissions to the outdoors; using and storing paints, solvents, pesticides,
and adhesives in closed containers in well-ventilated areas; using
those pollutant sources in periods of low or no occupancy; and allowing
time for building materials in new or remodeled areas to off-gas pollutants
- Air cleaning has
some limitations, but it can be a useful addition to source control
and ventilation. Air filters are only effective at removing some, not
all, of the pollution.
- Education and communication
are important parts of any air quality management program. When everyone
associated with the building, from occupants to maintenance, fully
understands the issues and communicates with each other they can work
more effectively together to prevent and solve problems.
Source: Environmental Health Center
For more information about air purifiers that remove sick-building contaminants,
to Air Quality Articles - Return
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