Sick Building Syndrome: Getting to the Source of a Hard-to-Find Problem
Modern science, in conjunction with advances in architectural and construction techniques, has taught us a lot about how to create the best conditions for human health. As it turns out, many of these aren’t really modern at all: natural light, fresh air and leafy green plants make a significant contribution.
But figuring out what has gone wrong when a building’s occupants are experiencing the symptoms of poor health can be infinitely more complicated.
SBS and “Building Related Illness”
The World Health Organization first used the term “Sick Building Syndrome” (SBS) in 1983 to describe the scenario under which a building’s occupants experience health effects that seem to be linked to their time spent in the building, but for which no obvious cause can be identified. It is distinguished from “Building Related Illness” (BRI) – in which “clinically defined” symptoms have “clearly identifiable causes,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
With SBS, symptoms are often the only initial clues, along with evidence that ill effects tend to improve when the sufferers leave the suspected building. Respiratory symptoms, along with other health effects like headache, eye, nose and throat irritation, dry or itchy skin, dizziness and nausea point to an issue with indoor air quality. Indoor air quality is frequently attributable to inadequate ventilation, which can sometimes be improved with relatively simple steps like an adjustment to the HVAC system’s mix of indoor and outdoor air being circulated in the building
No Easy Answers Can Mean an Expensive & Disruptive Process
But when symptoms and building factors do not align into an easy explanation, suspected SBS is an enormously stressful situation for both building occupants and owners, creating the risk of expensive and disruptive inquiries that leave matters unresolved or worse – leave everybody feeling sicker.
Guidance provided by the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Indoor Air Facts No. 4” includes four cited causes or contributing factors associated with SBS:
- Inadequate ventilation: Indoor air that does not take in a sufficient amount of outside air or a heating or air conditioning system that does not properly distribute air is cited as an “important factor” in suspected cases of SBS.
- Indoor chemical contaminants: Adhesives, carpeting, upholstery, manufactured wood products, copy machines, pesticides and cleaning agents can all produce volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can produce acute health reactions. Carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide from unvented kerosene and gas heaters, stoves and fireplaces can also create health problems.
- Outdoor chemical contaminants that get in: Vehicle exhaust, sewer gases and other contaminants can seep into a building from poorly located air intake vents, windows, deteriorating pipes or other openings.
- Biological contaminants: Bacteria, mold, pollen and viruses can reproduce in moisture accumulating in air ducts, humidifiers, drain pans, or any place that moisture has collected in ceiling tiles, carpeting or insulation.
Get to the Source of SBS Complaints
Finding the source of SBS requires a careful assessment by experts experienced in the process. An initial assessment may be enough to resolve your concerns. At Omega Environmental, we have seen cases that came down to the discovery of a piece of moldy fruit left in a desk drawer. In other cases, we have been able to identify and correct issues in time to prevent more serious health risks.
If you have reason to suspect SBS in your building, contact us to learn more about the steps you can take to identify and mitigate the threats.