What is sick building syndrome? What causes it? What are its symptoms? Is this building-related illness curable? Read on to find out.
If you experience a feeling of sickness in your place of work, or in any specific environment, do not ignore it. You might be having a sick building syndrome. Can a building fall sick?
Sick building syndrome (SBS) by definition, is a set of ailments associated with the place of work or residence of an individual. It is quite a misunderstood, rather less understood concept. And that is why the reasons behind feeling unwell in a particular environment either go unidentified or are attributed to something else and not SBS. In fact, not many know that something like sick building syndrome exists. Let’s understand what this syndrome means and look at its symptoms, causes, and cures.
Adverse environmental conditions in a building pose a health risk to its occupants. Individuals inhabiting that building experience symptoms like skin rashes, headaches, breathing problems, and muscle cramps. The symptoms can vary from person to person and building to building but sick building syndrome is necessarily characterized by a feeling of fatigue or extreme tiredness.
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and the Environmental Protection Agency define SBS as situations in which building occupants experience acute health or comfort effects that appear to be linked to the time spent in a particular building, with no specific illness or cause being identified. The complaints might be localized to a particular zone/area or be spread across the entire building.
Although SBS symptoms are not specific, some of the commonly observed ones include headaches, fatigue, respiratory problems like hyperventilation or shortness of breath, loss of concentration, and skin problems like rashes, pimples, dryness and itching. Some of the other symptoms of sick building syndrome are burning and watering eyes and nose, a burning sensation in the trachea, increased sensitivity to odors, nosebleeds, and nausea.
Chemical pollutants like formaldehyde used in preservatives and disinfectants, and benzene used in paints and oils can cause skin irritation, eye problems, and headaches. Contaminants entering a building from the external environment can lead to symptoms like cough, respiratory problems and skin allergies, in the occupants of that building. Surveys indicate that SBS patients also experience heart palpitations, disturbed heart rate, irritability, and nervousness.
Interestingly, SBS symptoms vanish after the patient is moved out of the building in which he/she experienced them. Or they may even disappear after the occupant moves away from that particular area of the building. Perhaps, that’s the reason why the syndrome is called ‘sick building’. Sometimes, SBS has long-lasting effects on the person’s health. The severity of SBS symptoms depends on the amount of time a person spends in that environment. It should be understood that the symptoms are related to the person experiencing them and not the building. For instance, a person allergic to a particular chemical may feel sick in an environment where that chemical is present. At the same time, someone who is not allergic to that chemical may not feel anything at all, in the same working environment. One should pay attention to these symptoms, understand their causes, and take the necessary action.
Researchers in the field have categorized sick building syndrome into two classes; one in which the exact cause of SBS is known and one in which the causative factors cannot be traced. There have been instances in and around the US wherein people have had to change their place or work or even leave their jobs on suffering from sick building syndrome.
The known causes of sick building syndrome are:
Problems in Ventilation: Ventilation standards suggest that any building should allow for adequate supply of outside air, mainly for removing or diluting body odors and also for maintaining a supply of fresh air. If heaters and air conditioners do not distribute sufficient amounts of air to all parts of the building or do not achieve equal distribution of air in all the areas, the occupants might experience symptoms like tiredness, fatigue, and breathing problems. It can lead to a feeling of discomfort, leading to irritability.
Pollutants and Contaminants: Machines and manufacturing units running in a building contribute to air pollution. Sources of other pollutants that come from within the building include adhesives, cleaning agents, pesticides and chemical products (if any). VOCs form a major group of pollutants that lead to sick building syndrome. The term VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) refers to the organic chemicals having high vapor pressure that affect human health. Combustion units inside buildings lead to release of gases such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide, causing air pollution. Smoking in the building premises further adds to air pollution.
Sick building syndrome might result from the biological contaminants in a building; such as mildew growing on walls, micro organisms breeding in stagnant water and insects and pests in improperly managed drainage systems. Chemical pollutants entering the building can also lead to sick building syndrome. These pollutants also include, harmful gases from exhaust pipes and pollutants from plumbing vents from other buildings, vehicle exhausts, and industrial pollutants.
Other Causes: Some of the other common causes include poor ergonomics, bad acoustics, improper lighting and heating, and poor quality of indoor air. Ergonomics is mainly to do with a workplace environment. The design of the workplace furniture, the quality of materials that employees need to handle, and a general consideration of the health and safety of the employees contribute to employee health. Even company policies, human interaction in the workplace, and work stress play a key role in the health and wellness of the employees. Other factors like lighting, temperature, acoustics, and air quality are applicable to both office and home environments.
The lighting and heating systems in any building, be it an educational institution, a workplace or a household, have a direct impact on the general health of its occupants. Improper lighting leads to eye problems. It can make one feel dull. The quality of air that depends on temperature, ventilation as well as air fragrance, has a direct impact on the health of the occupants. Use of room fresheners, perfumes or dryer sheets can help. The temperature maintained by the air conditioning system in a building affects the overall state of health of its occupants. Also, lack of cleanliness in a building has a negative effect on the occupants’ health.
How a person feels in a particular environment depends a lot on the people around him. Your state of mind and your mood, which are in some ways influenced by your environment, have an impact on your health. Every place has a vibe of its own; be it home or workplace. For example, with sulky people around you, you might feel dull. On the other hand, cheerful people around make you feel happy.
Prevention and Cure
Before resorting to any remedial measure, one must be sure that SBS is the factor causing the health problems. The health problems can be attributed to sick building syndrome if at least a few occupants of a particular building are experiencing similar symptoms.
Cleanliness and Hygiene: In general, a clean and hygienic environment conducive to stay in, is the best way to prevent sick building syndrome. Optimal temperature and pressure conditions, good ventilation and lighting, and an environment free of any kind of pollution is helpful. Chances of people suffering from sick building syndrome can be ruled out only if the occupants of the building are provided with good environmental conditions.
Occupants of the building can approach the landlord or concerned authorities, requesting them to inspect the building. It is advisable to get the local authorities like a health agency involved in the matter. Repair or replacement of the ventilation system, structural repairs, mold removal and general cleaning of the building may be required.
Good Ventilation: Installation of ultra violet lights in the ventilation systems is claimed to be a very good preventive measure. Ultraviolet lighting kills bacteria or molds in the ventilation systems and curbs their growth. Increasing the ventilation in a building by simple measures like keeping the windows open can curb sick building syndrome. In buildings that house pollutant sources, exhaust ventilation should be proper. Air cleaning devices like air filters, air cleaners and adsorbent beds are of great help in purifying the air.
Indoor Plants: Growing indoor plants is one of the best measures to prevent sick building syndrome and even cure it. Plants, as we all know, purify the air. They absorb carbon dioxide from the air and release oxygen. They also absorb trace chemicals in the atmosphere, further helping air purification. There are certain plants that are specifically helpful for purifying air, thus curbing its pollution.
Dealing with SBS in the Workplace: Though SBS may apply to any building, it is most commonly associated with a work setup. Dealing with SBS in the workplace is the shared responsibility of the employer and the employees. It is the responsibility of the employer to carry out employee surveys for a timely identification of the problems in working (if any). The employer should ensure that general cleanliness and hygiene is maintained. It is the employer’s responsibility to provide the employees with an environment conducive to work in. And this covers everything from heating and ventilation systems to organizational ergonomics.
Before the employer can take any action, it is necessary for the employees to bring it to his notice. The employees must identify the reasons behind their sickness and after confirming that the reasons are associated with the working environment, they should convey the same to the concerned authorities (usually the HR or Admin departments). It is the responsibility of the employees to contribute in their own way, towards improving the working conditions.
Why just ‘working conditions’ and workplace’? The same things apply to every setup where people come together and spend time; be it a small household, a university or an office building. Sick building syndrome has to do with any kind of construction that houses people. It is every occupant’s responsibility to identify whether he/she is affected. And if so, the individual should take due measures to fight the condition.