Sick Building Syndrome

By Sally Deneen

You may notice that whenever you’re at work your eyes get watery, your nose or throat get irritated, your skin becomes dry or itchy. You start to get a headache. Fatigue sets in. It’s hard to concentrate. Colleagues complain of similar symptoms. Yet, an odd thing happens: Soon after you leave the building you feel relief.

All are indicators of "sick building syndrome." That’s a scary-sounding, catch-all term, which simply describes situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that seem linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Complaints may come from workers in one specific room or zone, or they may come from employees throughout a building. One report cited by EPA says up to 30 percent of new and remodeled buildings worldwide may prompt excessive complaints related to lousy indoor air quality.

"Sick building syndrome probably originated as a result of the oil embargoes that began in the mid-1970s," reports the journal Archives of Environmental Health. Buildings erected after that increasingly were built "tight" – with windows that couldn’t open, for instance – to conserve energy. An unexpected consequence: Fungi became trapped indoors, along with chemicals released from cleaning products, ozone from photocopiers, pesticides sprayed by the exterminator, fumes from new carpets, and secondhand cigarette smoke drifting indoors from the ventilation system.

Often, according to the EPA, problems trace to a building being operated or maintained in a manner that is inconsistent with its original design or operating procedures. Sometimes indoor air problems trace to poor building design or occupant activities.

There’s some thought that no one really knows why people get sick; maybe it isn’t the air, but some other reason, like maybe sitting too long in front of a computer (a.k.a. "visual display unit" or "VDU"). One study found increased sick-building symptoms when working at a VDU at least seven hours a day; other studies found an effect after fewer hours, according to the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

To figure out what’s going on, building managers can conduct a walk-through survey to look for obvious issues such as poor cleaning, water damage or overcrowding, then may distribute a questionnaire to employees to get a sense of the extent of the problem.

Solutions can be wide-ranging, including storing paint only in well-ventilated areas and letting new carpets off-gas their airborne pollutants before anyone goes inside the building. For more solutions, see:


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