What is Sick Building Syndrome? What are the Causes of Sick Building Syndrome?

Young Asian girl sitting on chair waiting room feel scary for bad news stress hopeless and sadness for her father in front surgical room at hospital, Hospital environment concept.

Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) refers to the discomfort and health issues experienced by people in a building. Symptoms may include headaches, eye and throat irritation, coughing, dry skin, dizziness, nausea, difficulty focusing, fatigue, and sensitivity to odours.

If you or others are experiencing these symptoms, it likely indicates poor indoor air quality (IAQ), and the problem should be addressed promptly.

Related article: What is motion sickness? Why do you get motion sickness? How to prevent motion sickness?

What are the Causes of Sick Building Syndrome?

Identifying the specific cause of Sick Building Syndrome in a particular building can be challenging. However, factors contributing to SBS may include:

  1. Inadequate ventilation: Buildings should follow ASHRAE recommendations, providing at least 15 cubic feet per minute (cfm) of outdoor air per person. Many buildings offer only 5 cfm per person, leading to poor IAQ.
  2. Chemical contamination from indoor sources: SBS can result from chemicals emitted within the building, such as adhesives, furniture, paints, pesticides, and cleaning agents. These substances release volatile organic compounds (VOCs), negatively impacting health.
  3. Chemical contamination from outdoor sources: Outside air may carry pollutants like smoke from wildfires, vehicle exhaust, smog, and industrial pollution, entering the building and causing indoor air pollution.
  4. Biological contamination: Molds, pollen, bacteria, and viruses can accumulate in buildings, especially in areas where water collects. Ducts, humidifiers, drain pans, ceilings, carpets, and insulation can harbour biological contaminants.

These contributors to Sick Building Syndrome can interact or compound with other issues like improper humidity and temperature levels. Despite thorough investigations, pinpointing the exact cause of SBS may remain challenging. Therefore, it is often more effective to focus on treating and preventing Sick Building Syndrome rather than trying to eliminate the elusive cause.

Woman and man workers running from the construction site, coughing and covering face.

How to Prevent and Address Sick Building Syndrome?

Identifying the exact cause of sick building syndrome can be challenging, but as a building manager, you can take steps to address and prevent it. Start by using a healthy building checklist to assess the situation.

Conduct interviews with occupants and employees to determine if they’ve experienced the symptoms mentioned earlier. Specifically, inquire if symptoms quickly subside when individuals leave the building, as this is a key indicator of sick building syndrome. Check the building’s construction year and inspect areas near air diffusers for dirt or dust. Examine the HVAC system for mold or microbial growth, and note any lingering odors.

If you observe these issues and occupants are experiencing symptoms, it’s likely sick building syndrome is present. The good news is that there are ways to treat and prevent it in affected buildings.

A highly effective approach involves implementing a commercial air purification system throughout the building. It’s crucial to choose a commercial-grade air purifier, as these models are equipped with durable components designed to meet the air circulation demands of commercial spaces. Residential air purifiers may not be sufficient for effectively treating sick building syndrome.

Shot of a young female nurse suffering from a headache while talking to a colleague in the city.

What are the Solutions For Sick Building Syndrome?

Addressing and preventing Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) involves implementing various solutions to improve indoor air quality and create a healthier environment. Here are some potential solutions:

  1. Improved Ventilation:
    • Ensure proper ventilation by following recommended standards, such as those provided by ASHRAE.
    • Increase the flow of outdoor air to dilute indoor pollutants.
    • Regularly maintain and clean ventilation systems.
  2. Air Purification:
    • Install commercial-grade air purifiers with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters to reduce airborne contaminants.
    • Use air purifiers designed to handle the specific needs and size of the building.
  3. Source Control:
    • Identify and minimize the use of products emitting volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as paints, adhesives, and cleaning agents.
    • Ensure proper storage and disposal of chemicals to prevent indoor pollution.
  4. Regular Cleaning:
    • Implement a thorough and regular cleaning schedule to reduce dust, mould, and other contaminants.
    • Pay special attention to areas prone to moisture and mould growth.
  5. Humidity Control:
    • Maintain indoor humidity levels within the recommended range (30-50%) to prevent mould growth.
    • Use dehumidifiers if necessary.
  6. Occupant Education:
    • Educate building occupants about proper ventilation practices and the importance of reporting any symptoms promptly.
    • Encourage good hygiene practices to reduce the spread of illnesses.
  7. Workstation Ergonomics:
    • Ensure ergonomic office furniture and setups to minimize physical discomfort.
    • Encourage short breaks and movement throughout the workday.
  8. Regular Building Inspections:
    • Conduct regular inspections for signs of water damage, mould, and other potential sources of indoor pollutants.
    • Address any issues promptly to prevent further contamination.
  9. Outdoor Air Quality Management:
    • Monitor and manage outdoor air quality, especially during events like wildfires or high pollution days.
    • Use air filters in HVAC systems to reduce outdoor pollutants entering the building.
  10. Occupant Feedback:
    • Encourage open communication with building occupants, allowing them to report concerns and symptoms.
    • Act promptly on occupant feedback to address emerging issues.

Implementing a combination of these solutions tailored to the specific circumstances of the building can help mitigate the impact of Sick Building Syndrome and promote a healthier indoor environment. Regular monitoring and adjustments may be necessary to maintain optimal conditions.

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