According to the EPA, sick building syndrome affects people with the following loose definition “(they) experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building” and “but, no specific illness or cause can be identified”. If this seems vague, it may be intentional because sick building syndrome is not fully understood and further research is required. But, we do know enough about this phenomenon to narrow down the causes, effects, and some possible solutions.

Where Does Sick Building Syndrome Occur?

This phenomenon is not restricted to large office buildings or other locations where large numbers of people work. Sick building syndrome can occur in a single room or area and it can be present in an entire home or large building. The size of the structure is irrelevant, there are other factors that cause people to feel ill.

What are the Symptoms of this Syndrome?

There are a number of common symptoms that have been connected to sick building syndrome. Many of these can be felt during a cold or other illness, but there is a clear difference. When people are affected by this syndrome, the symptoms tend to clear up quickly when they leave that building. This is the easiest way to tell the difference between an illness and sick building syndrome. The most common symptoms include a dry cough, dry or itchy skin, feelings of fatigue, dry eyes, nausea, dizziness, a sore throat, itchy eyes, and a sensitivity to various odors.

What Are the Causes of this Syndrome?

Let’s take a look at four possible causes of sick building syndrome in more detail, they are:

1.   Building Design

One of the more common theories about the causes of this syndrome is the change in construction techniques that occurred in the 1970s. At this time, a greater focus was placed upon the energy consumption requirements of buildings. Architects designed buildings with a greater emphasis on the reduction of energy waste to improve the environment. This was achieved with tighter building designs where air could not escape to save energy (and money) on heating and cooling.

2.   Chemical Contaminants

Another key factor may be the materials and chemicals that are used during the construction of a building. During the building process, a significant volume of fumes are released and this can continue for a long time after. The common term for these fumes is Volatile Organic Chemicals or VOCs. Some common VOCs, include cleansing agents, adhesive additives, wood treatments, and various other chemical compounds. Other chemical pollutants may include gas stoves, vehicle exhaust fumes, tobacco smoke, and more due to bad venting problems.

3.   Biological Contaminants

The presence of biological toxins is a possible cause of poor IAQ and this is especially true in buildings with more people working or living in close proximity. These toxins may include bacteria, viruses, mold spores, pollen, and others. The sources of these contaminants may vary from pet dander and animal droppings to stagnant water where mold can grow. The accumulation of biological toxins in carpets, drapes, ceiling spaces, humidifiers, air ducts, and other locations is a real threat to health and wellbeing.

4.   HVAC Equipment

If the HVAC system is poorly installed or badly maintained, it can have a detrimental effect on the people working and living in that building. The distribution of air may be uneven and it may not meet the needs of the connected spaces. The HVAC system may be incorrectly sized which can lead to performance and efficiency issues. Many people ignore the maintenance requirements for their HVAC system which can lead to poor IAQ problems. Heating and cooling specialists recommend an inspection prior to each heating and cooling season.

The exact origins may be unknown at this time and further research in this area is certainly needed. But, from a layman’s perspective, the main thing to remember is that sick building syndrome is closely linked to poor Indoor Air Quality or IAQ. It’s important to consider the lived experiences of people working and living in the building. If the same symptoms are reported, it’s likely that sick building syndrome is present.

What Are the Effects of Sick Building Syndrome?

We’ve seen the possible health related symptoms that can affect people living or working in a building affected by this syndrome. Suffering from these symptoms can have a major impact on the quality of life for people living in those spaces. We tend to spend most of our time at home and if the IAQ is poor it’s hard to relax. Poor IAQ can trigger allergic reactions and it can be especially miserable for people that suffer from pre-existing respiratory problems.

At work, the main concern for any manager or business owner is how sick building syndrome will affect their employees. If people feel ill, their focus and productivity are sure to suffer and they tend to take more sick days. The turnover of employees may be far higher than average because people don’t want to work in the building. This decision may take place on a subconscious level, but the end result is the same. When companies take steps to deal with their sick building syndrome, they often notice a boost in productivity.

What Can I Do About Sick Building Syndrome?

If you suspect that you’re dealing with sick building syndrome, there are some ways to deal with the problem. The most immediate concern is a lack of fresh air that may be causing people to feel lethargic and ill. So, make sure to open the windows whenever possible to increase the level of oxygen and improve the IAQ. Next, encourage people to take at least some of their breaks outdoors to get access to fresher air there. The next stage is to contact your local HVAC company and schedule an inspection of the heating and cooling system. In many cases, some essential maintenance and cleaning will fix the problems. Another possible solution is to increase the number of air exchanges to improve the airflow throughout the building.