Is your home or workplace making you sick? If you’ve been experiencing unexplained symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, and headaches that only occur when you spend time in a particular location – like inside your apartment or office building – you may be suffering from sick building syndrome (SBS). What exactly is SBS? Where and why does it occur? Can it be managed? We have the answers for you below.
What is Sick Building Syndrome?
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the term "sick building syndrome" (SBS) is used to describe 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. In most cases, the structure causing the symptoms is an office building.
While SBS can be hard to diagnose, it is recognized by health organizations around the world as a health concern.
What Are the Symptoms of SBS?
In many cases, issues with indoor air quality (IAQ) only cause mild discomfort in most people. However, indoor air pollution can exacerbate existing health conditions or cause more severe symptoms, especially in those with chronic respiratory conditions or autoimmune diseases. Sick building syndrome can affect our health in a myriad of ways, from respiratory symptoms and asthma flare-ups to chronic fatigue and brain fog. Since many of these symptoms can be attributed to other diagnosable medical conditions, it can be challenging to ascertain whether SBS is the root cause. And since there is no apparent cause for SBS, there is also no single way to test for or treat the syndrome.
So, how can you tell if you and others in your building are suffering from SBS? Those experiencing SBS symptoms usually have relief soon after leaving the building in question. Reported symptoms of sick building syndrome can vary case-by-case and can include:
- Lethargy or fatigue
- Dry or itchy skin
- Muscle pain, stiffness, or aches
- Irritation of mucous membranes
- Sneezing, congestion, or nosebleeds
- Sensitivity to odors
- Difficulty concentrating
- Gas and bloating
- Hoarseness and cough
- Chest pains and shortness of breath
- Cardiac arrhythmias
Is SBS the Same Thing as Building-Related Illness?
A 1984 World Health Organization (WHO) report states that up to 30 percent of new and remodeled buildings worldwide may be the subject of excessive complaints related to IAQ. According to the report, the conditions would often be temporary, but that some buildings would have long-term problems, and that problems would likely arise when a facility is operated or maintained in a manner that is inconsistent with its original design or prescribed operating procedures. According to the WHO report, sometimes indoor air problems result from poor building design or occupant activities.
The term "building-related illness" (BRI) is used when symptoms of a specific, diagnosable illness are identified and can be attributed directly to airborne building contaminants. Symptoms of SBS can be similar to those of BRI. However, BRI symptoms are generally more severe and can cause chronic respiratory conditions and lung damage. Those suffering from BRI may also require prolonged recovery times after leaving the building in question.
Perhaps the best-known case of building-related illness occurred in 1976 when over 200 cases of mysterious pneumonia struck members of the American Legion attending a conference in Philadelphia. After months of investigation and lab work, a never-before-seen bacterial organism was discovered, Legionella pneumophila. If given a chance, Legionella thrives in the warm water of a building's cooling towers. Researchers found that mass illness can result when mists from that contaminated water are conducted into a building via the ventilation system. Another building-related illness caused by Legionella is Pontiac fever, marked by fever, chills, headaches, and muscle aches.
What May Cause SBS?
According to the EPA, while the exact causes of sick building syndrome are unknown, they are often attributed to indoor air pollutants. These pollutants can include volatile organic compounds (VOCs), harmful gasses such as carbon monoxide (CO), pesticides, harsh chemical cleaning products, and harsh chemical disinfectants. Recent research has found that mycotoxins from indoor air fungi may also cause some instances of SBS.
Related: What Are Mycotoxins?
According to the EPA, some building characteristics that may contribute to SBS symptoms are:
Poor ventilation is thought to be one of the significant contributors to SBS. Inadequate air ventilation within a building can cause health issues for the building’s occupants. Insufficient ventilation may be caused by ineffective heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.
Bacteria, molds, pollen, and viruses are types of biological contaminants. These substances may breed in stagnant water that has accumulated in ducts, humidifiers, and drain pans or where water has collected on ceiling tiles, carpeting, or insulation. Biological contaminants can also be produced by some insects, rodents, and bird droppings. Symptoms associated with exposure to biological pollutants include muscle aches, cough and chest tightness, fever, chills, and allergic reactions.
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 (for example, bathrooms and kitchens) can enter the building through poorly located air intake vents, windows, and other openings. In addition, noxious fumes and gases can enter a structure from an attached parking garage.
Chemical Contaminants from Indoor Sources
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can be found in various building materials and substances, including adhesives, upholstery, and harsh cleaning and disinfectant products. When VOCs become airborne, building occupants can inhale them and experience either temporary or chronic adverse health effects.
How Can SBS Be Treated or Prevented?
There are several ways to alleviate the effects of sick building syndrome, including:
- Increasing ventilation
- Performing routine HVAC maintenance (e.g., periodic cleaning or replacement of filters)
- Restricting cigarette smoking near building entrances and air intakes
- Storage and use of paints, adhesives, solvents, and pesticides in well-ventilated areas
- Allowing time for new building materials (in new or remodeled rooms) to off-gas pollutants before occupancy
- Testing for illness-causing contaminants (such as asbestos, lead, formaldehyde, and radon gas)
- Testing for and remediating mold (especially within air ducts)
- Cleaning and disinfecting with VOC-free products
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