Sick building syndrome refers to illnesses and symptoms that affect multiple occupants who live or work in a particular building. These symptoms cannot be attributed to other maladies and they will disappear once the person leaves the building.
Causes of Sick Building Syndrome
Sick building syndrome seemed to arise as a term in the 1970s during the energy crisis that was occurring at the time. Buildings were sealed tightly and windows permanently closed to conserve the energy within. This resulted in reduced fresh air circulation. Add in the increased use of chemicals in cleaning products and paints, poor lighting, increased use of computers and you have a cocktail that can cause various related ailments to the building’s occupants.
Specific causes of sick building syndrome can include:
1. Inadequate Ventilation
Standards for HVAC systems originally required around 15 cubic feet per minute (cfm) of outside air for each building occupant. This was reduced to 5 cfm per occupant during the energy crisis, which was found to be inadequate for the health and comfort of the building’s occupants, resulting in more people getting sick.
Eventually, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) developed its ventilation standard to strike a balance between energy efficiency and adequate ventilation to prevent sickness. We are now back to providing a minimum of 15 cfm of outdoor air per person and 20 cfm/person in office spaces. Some densely occupied buildings, like gyms, or those with high pollutants, like labs or smoking lounges, require up to 60 cfm per occupant.
2. Chemical Contaminants
Paints, adhesives, carpets, upholstery, manufactured wood products, copy machines, pesticides, and cleaning agents bring a whole (unhealthy) host of chemicals into a building. Toxins emitted from these products (unless they are certified as low-emitting by a third-party certification program) include volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including formaldehyde.
Outdoor air that enters a building can also be a source of indoor air pollution. Poorly located intake vents, windows and other openings can allow pollution occurring outdoors to enter the buildings.
3. Biological Toxins
The biological contaminants contributing to sick building syndrome include pollen, bacteria, viruses, fungus, molds, etc. These contaminants can breed in stagnant water that has accumulated in humidifiers, drainpipes and ducts or where water has collected on ceiling tiles, insulation, carpets and upholstery.
If there is any dampness or leaking within the building, mold spores may form on surfaces, which can spread through HVAC systems throughout the building. Toxic mold has been proven to cause and exacerbate maladies and illnesses in individuals exposed to it. Some ailments attributed to untreated mold include respiratory difficulties like asthma and pneumonia, rashes, depression, fatigue, digestive problems, and inflammation and pain in the joints.
Symptoms of Sick Building Syndrome
Although many of the symptoms of sick building syndrome can also be caused by other factors, people considered to have the syndrome may exhibit any number of nonspecific symptoms that may be increased when the person is associated with certain buildings.
- Hoarsenessor cough
- Muscle discomfort (stiffness, pain, cramps, aches)
- Skin rash
- Eye irritation
- Sore throat
- Swelling of legs, trunk, and/or ankles
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pains
- Cardiac arrhythmias
- Mental changes (problems with concentration, memory, moods)
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, if 20% of a building’s occupants has particular symptoms, which can include watering eyes; hoarseness; headaches; dry, itchy skin; dizziness; nausea; heart palpitations; miscarriages; shortness of breath; nosebleeds; chronic fatigue; mental fogginess; tremors; swelling of legs or ankles; and cancer – a building may be labeled as a “sick building”. This is especially true if symptoms lessen when the affected individuals are not in the building for a day or more.
Risk Factors for Sick Building Syndrome
Some individuals are more at risk for being afflicted with sick building syndrome than others. Some of the factors that contribute to the likelihood of acquiring the illness include:
- Heightened sensitivity to environmental antigens
- Have one or more diagnosed medical problems (for example, asthma)
- Heightened sensitivity of smell
- Females are more likely to develop symptoms
- Gulf War veteran
Diagnosing Sick Building Syndrome
Sick building syndrome is a controversial illness and some clinicians may not agree that it actually exists. There are no specific tests for the illness to accurately diagnose the syndrome. However, there are tests for the symptoms and their causes; for example, tests for formaldehyde, radon gas, asbestos, lead, and other components such as black mold are available.
The complications of this alleged syndrome include increasing symptoms, interference of job productivity, job loss, necessity of relocation, extensive and expensive building testing (materials and airflow testing), and many medical tests to try to achieve a definitive diagnosis.
To help identify whether your building is causing or contributing to the problems, look for these common characteristics:
- Symptoms occur when occupants are in the building or a specific area of the building.
- Symptoms dissipate or disappear when affected persons are away from the building or area.
- Symptoms coincide seasonally with the use of heating or cooling equipment.
- Multiple co-workers have similar complaints.
How to Detect Sick Building Syndrome
Even though the existence of a valid illness is controversial, there are some steps that can reveal issues that can cause the alleged syndrome.
A walk around the building can expose some sources of problem issues that could cause symptoms. Assess the HVAC system to identify pollution sources. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) can be contacted to perform an evaluation.
One of the most important issues is to make sure that there is not an actual problem like contamination with molds or bacteria that requires remediation (building-related illnesses).
If Your Employees Are Complaining of Illness, Take Action
If several employees are complaining of symptoms common to sick building syndrome, it may be time to perform a thorough assessment of the buildings. There are remedies for poor air quality and chemical contaminants.
If you suspect or find that the buildings contain mold, it’s time to call in the professionals to perform a thorough remediation. Don’t attempt to clean up existing mold; disturbing the spores can cause them to further permeate the building.
Don’t compromise the health and well-being of you and your employees. Call the professionals at St. Louis Cleaning and Restoration. Our trained technicians will use the correct and effective procedures to remediate the mold in your buildings.