Sick Building Syndrome

The environment we live and work within has a significant influence on the quality and quantity of the work we put out. And, for the amount of time we spend indoors, we don’t seem to hold a very high standard for the impact it has on our physical and mental well-being. Even less so when it comes to our workspace: too cold, too hot, stale air, little to no plants, funky smells, lousy acoustics, etc.

But, what if your environment is making you sick?

Know that utterly drained feeling after a full day at the office, that feeling you just can’t shake, but you can’t figure out how it can be the amount of work or the hours, and you can’t point towards another identifiable cause, then consider Sick Building Syndrome (SBS). The EPA (The United States Environmental Protection Agency) defines the syndrome as:

Situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified. The complaints may be localized in a particular room or zone, or may be widespread throughout the building.
— Environmental Protection Agency

The NHS (UK National Health Service) says the following symptoms* are the most common when dealing with SBS:

  • headaches
  • blocked or runny nose
  • dry, itchy skin
  • dry, sore eyes
  • rashes
  • tiredness and difficulty concentrating

So, that low-grade headache that nudges you in the background whilst working, futzing your concentration and dragging out your work to the point where all you’d like to do is smash your head into your keyboard on endless repeat in the faint hope that it will cause the work day to finally end, might be due to SBS. Same for low energy and fatigue. Granted, headaches and a lack of energy can also be attributed to underlying health issues, overworking, skipping a meal, or simple tiredness, but the severely lacking air quality in most indoor spaces isn’t helping.

But what causes a sick building in the first place? The EPA gives the following causes:

  • Inadequate ventilation: In the early and mid 20th century, building ventilation standards (within the US) called for approximately 15 cubic feet per minute (cfm) of outside air for each building occupant, primarily to dilute and remove body odours. As a result of the 1973 oil embargo, however, national energy conservation measures called for a reduction in the amount of outdoor air provided for ventilation to 5 cfm per occupant. In many cases, these reduced outdoor air ventilation rates were found to be inadequate to maintain the health and comfort of building occupants. 

Crappy ventilation can be a design flaw or a way of cutting corners, but it can also occur when heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems do not effectively distribute air to people in the building.

  • Chemical contaminants from indoor sources: Most indoor air pollution comes from sources inside the building. For example, adhesives, carpeting, upholstery, manufactured wood products, copy machines, pesticides, and cleaning agents may emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including formaldehyde.
     
  • Chemical contaminants from outdoor sources: The outdoor air that enters a building can be a source of indoor air pollution. For example, pollutants from motor vehicle exhausts; plumbing vents, and building exhausts (e.g., bathrooms and kitchens) can enter the building through poorly located air intake vents, windows, and other openings. In addition, combustion products can enter a building from a nearby garage. 

On a small and more immediate scale, the NHS gives the following solutions:

  • Open windows to improve ventilation if you can.
  • Don’t set the (room)temperature too high (aim for about 19C) and don't change it lots of times during the day.
  • Try to reduce workplace stress.
  • Take regular screen breaks if you use a computer.
  • Go outside for some fresh air during lunchtime and other breaks.

These kinds of solutions are helpful since most of them are within your immediate control. For more long-term and large-solutions the EPA has these to offer (see notes for extended version):

  • Pollutant source removal or modification is an effective approach to resolving an indoor air quality problem when sources are known and control is feasible.
     
  • Increasing ventilation rates and air distribution often can be a cost-effective means of reducing indoor pollutant levels. Meaning, your buildings HVAC systems should be up to code and should be regularly maintained and cleaned.
     
  • Air cleaning can be a useful adjunct to source control and ventilation but has certain limitations.
     
  • Education and communication are important elements in both remedial and preventive indoor air quality management programs. When building occupants, management, and maintenance personnel fully communicate and understand the causes and consequences of indoor air quality problems, they can work more efficiently together to prevent problems from occurring, or to solve them if they do. 

With several decades of research to back itself up, SBS is quantifiable and something governments and health services take seriously. So, don't be afraid to open up a conversation with your employer, landlord, your doctor, or your local government agency.

written by Julie Smits


Notes

  • The NHS does warn that these symptoms are common and can be caused by many things and if they bother you all of the time and in multiple places SBS might not be the cause.

Extended EPA list for the removal of SBS causes:

  • Pollutant source removal or modification is an effective approach to resolving an indoor air quality problem when sources are known and control is feasible. Examples include routine maintenance of HVAC systems, e.g., periodic cleaning or replacement of filters; replacement of water-stained ceiling tile and carpeting; institution of smoking restrictions; venting contaminant source emissions to the outdoors; storage and use of paints, adhesives, solvents, and pesticides in well ventilated areas, and use of these pollutant sources during periods of non-occupancy; and allowing time for building materials in new or remodeled areas to off-gas pollutants before occupancy. 
     
  • Increasing ventilation rates and air distribution often can be a cost effective means of reducing indoor pollutant levels. HVAC systems should be designed, at a minimum, to meet ventilation standards in local building codes; however, many systems are not operated or maintained to ensure that these design ventilation rates are provided. In many buildings, IAQ can be improved by operating the HVAC system to at least its design standard, and to ASHRAE Standard 62-1989 if possible. When there are strong pollutant sources, local exhaust ventilation may be appropriate to exhaust contaminated air directly from the building. Local exhaust ventilation is particularly recommended to remove pollutants that accumulate in specific areas such as rest rooms, copy rooms, and printing facilities. (For a more detailed discussion of ventilation, read Indoor Air Facts No. 3R, Ventilation and Air Quality in Office Buildings.)
     
  • Particle control devices such as the typical furnace filter are inexpensive but do not effectively capture small particles; high performance air filters capture the smaller, respirable particles but are relatively expensive to install and operate. Mechanical filters do not remove gaseous pollutants. Some specific gaseous pollutants may be removed by adsorbent beds, but these devices can be expensive and require frequent replacement of the adsorbent material. In sum, air cleaners can be useful, but have limited application. Education and communication are important elements in both remedial and preventive indoor air quality management programs. When building occupants, management, and maintenance personnel fully communicate and understand the causes and consequences of IAQ problems, they can work more effectively together to prevent problems from occurring, or to solve them if they do.