Sick Building Syndrome: How to Make Sure Yours Stays Well
Sick building syndrome (SBS), which may affect some 30 percent of new and remodeled buildings, according to the World Health Organization, can be a source of health issues related to time spent inside a structure. Here is a brief overview of sick building syndrome, its possible causes, and what can be done about it.
What Is Sick Building Syndrome?
Sick building syndrome occurs when the occupants of a building experience acute health issues, physical discomfort, respiratory distress or other problems that are closely associated with time spent in a particular building. The cause of the health effects is unknown, and can be tied only to being in a structure with sick building syndrome. Often, when an affected person leaves a structure affected with SBS, the symptoms quickly disappear. Symptoms may include:
- Acute physical discomfort
- Coughing and throat irritation
- Itchy eyes
- Runny or irritated nose
- Trouble concentrating.
The onset of symptoms may be restricted to only one room, floor or zone of the building or could occur anywhere within the structure.
What Causes Sick Building Syndrome?
Most experts believe SBS can be traced to problems with indoor air quality. Poor or inadequate building design, using the structure for something it was not designed for (using an office building for manufacturing, for example), or insufficient building maintenance can also contribute to sick building syndrome. On a larger scale, SBS can be caused or aggravated by:
- Inadequate ventilation: Buildings require sufficient ventilation to remove stale, potentially polluted indoor air and bring in fresh outdoor air. Airborne contaminants and other problems will rapidly accumulate in a building with insufficient ventilation.
- Chemical odors, substances or other contaminants: Cleaning products, paints, varnishes, carpeting, furniture, smoke, pesticides and related material can produce fumes and odors that contribute to SBS. Sometimes these fumes can be harmful to health if they consist of formaldehyde, carbon monoxide or other dangerous substances.
- Biological factors: Mold, bacteria, viruses, pollen and other biologically based material can cause respiratory problems, irritate allergies, trigger asthma attacks or spread disease. Excess moisture can provide an environment in which these microorganisms can easily grow and thrive. HVAC drainage systems, ductwork, humidifiers, and wet carpeting or insulation can be common sources of moisture.
What Can Be Done to Stop Sick Building Syndrome?
- Increase ventilation: Increase ventilation reaching all locations within the building to improve the removal of odors, fumes, particulates and contaminants. Add whole-building ventilators, turn on ventilation fans in rooms with large amounts of contaminants or moisture (kitchens, bathrooms or workrooms), and make sure HVAC systems are working at their best.
- Add air cleaning or filtration: Install an air cleaning or filtration system that will remove additional contaminants from the indoor air. Make sure the air filters in the HVAC system are clean and fresh; check them at least monthly and change them when dirty. If SBS is present, it may be necessary to change HVAC filters more often.
- Practice source control: Remove items and substances that can produce odors, fumes and contaminants. Keep volatile substances tightly sealed and store them in well-ventilated areas away from HVAC vents. Opt for milder cleaning products when possible. Replace wet ceiling tiles, insulation or carpeting immediately. Restrict or prohibit smoking inside the building.
- Inform and educate: Provide information to the building occupants that will help them reduce activities that contribute to sick building syndrome. If SBS has been a problem, make your intentions known when you take steps to resolve the issue and explain any new procedures or restrictions clearly and accurately. Ask for tenants’ help with stopping SBS and describe any sanctions that might result for violating procedures.
Our goal is to help educate our customers about Plumbing, HVACR, Fire Protection and Alarm Systems in Mechanical, Commercial and Residential settings. For more information about sick building syndrome and how to prevent or remediate it, and to view projects we’ve worked on, visit our website!