What Exactly Is Sick Building Syndrome and How Can You Prevent It?
Whether working in an office, retail store, medical facility or another structure, a significant portion of today’s workforce spends the majority of its time indoors. If conditions aren’t right inside the building, these workers could experience negative health effects. One of the most significant causes of health problems among indoor workers is sick building syndrome (SBS). Here’s a brief introduction to SBS that can help you understand this still-controversial and often misunderstood influence on worker health.
What Is Sick Building Syndrome?
SBS is a medical condition in which sufferers experience significant negative health effects that appear to be directly connected to the conditions inside a building. Despite the illness that these individuals experience, no specific cause can be found for their sickness or discomfort. Many believe that sick building syndrome is caused by exposure to multiple chemical or biological substances in the environment, some or all of which haven’t been identified. Not everyone who spends time in a “sick building” will experience SBS. Some believe it may be restricted to individuals who are already susceptible to allergic reactions, respiratory conditions or sicknesses related to sensitivity to environmental conditions.
Symptoms of Sick Building Syndrome
Individuals who experience sick building syndrome often report a range of physical conditions and discomforts. These can include:
- Irritation of eyes, nose or throat
- Itchy, dry skin
- Dry cough
- Difficulty concentrating
- Increased sensitivity to odors or fumes In almost all cases, the cause of these SBS-associated symptoms is unknown.
However, symptoms are triggered or made worse by spending time in the building. Notably, these conditions usually disappear when a sufferer leaves the building and can return almost immediately when the sufferer re-enters the structure.
What Causes Sick Building Syndrome?
Sick building syndrome is believed to be closely tied to indoor air quality (IAQ). Poor indoor air quality is a known contributor to illness and disease, respiratory conditions, asthma, allergies and related problems. However, SBS appears to go well beyond the problems associated just with low IAQ, with potential causes including:
- Inadequate ventilation – Buildings require a source of ventilation to remove stale indoor air and bring in a constant supply of fresh outdoor air. Poor ventilation may contribute to SBS by not removing substances that contribute to it.
- Chemical contaminants – Chemical fumes, odors and other contaminants from indoor and outdoor sources could be accumulating in the building’s indoor air. These substances can include volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from building materials, fumes from cleaners, smoke, pesticides, vehicle exhaust fumes or odors from equipment or processes.
- Biological contaminants – Biological materials such as mold, mildew, pollen, insects, rodent or bird droppings, bacteria and viruses could also be a major contributor to SBS.
Preventing Sick Building Syndrome
There are several ways to prevent or reduce the chances of experiencing sick building syndrome, such as:
- Find and remove contaminants – Locate and remove as many contaminants as possible to reduce their effects on building occupants. Remove stained or moldy ceiling tiles, impose smoking restrictions, and move solvents, paints, pesticides and similar materials to off-site storage.
- Increase ventilation – Boost indoor ventilation with energy recovery ventilation. Open windows and run fans when weather permits.
- Add air cleaning and purification – Install an air purification system that filters the air moving through the HVAC system using high-quality air filters. Some of these filters are effective enough to remove fumes and odors. Also ensure that HVAC air filters are changed regularly.
- Educate employees – Let employees and building occupants know about the condition and encourage practices that reduce contaminants and improve indoor air quality.
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