Sick Building Syndrome: What’s in Your Living Space?

sick building syndrome

Sick building syndrome (SBS) is a health condition that is directly related to poor indoor air quality within one or more buildings that a person occupies. Generally, no other specific cause or illness can be identified that causes symptoms associated with the condition.

The physical reactions can be associated with one room or a particular living space or zone such as a house, work space or other indoor living area. The reactions may be nonspecific as to the exact indoor contaminant but a repeat response to exposure to a particular indoor space is consistent.

A similar illness, Building Related Illness” (BRI), presents specifics symptoms that are more easily attributed to a particular building contaminant that can be identified.

A report by the World Health Organization Committee states that:

…up to 30 percent of new and remodeled buildings worldwide may be the subject of excessive complaints related to indoor air quality (IAQ). Often this condition is temporary, but some buildings have long-term problems.

Frequently, problems result when a building is operated or maintained in a manner that is inconsistent with its original design or prescribed operating procedures. Sometimes indoor air problems are a result of poor building design or occupant activities.

Sick Building Syndrome Indicators

  • Symptoms occur after entering the particular zone or room
  • Cause of symptom(s) is not specifically known
  • Severe headaches
  • Eye, nose, or throat irritation
  • Dry cough
  • Burning lungs
  • Dry or itchy skin
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Difficulty in concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Sensitivity to odors
  • Muscle aches
  • Symptoms are relieved soon after leaving the building

BRI Indicators

BRI produces specific complaints and may cause prolonged damage to a person’s health. The specific symptoms can be traced to identifiable contaminants and can be clinically defined.

BRI can overlap with descriptions of Chemical Allergies or Chemical Injury that also can occur in a contaminated indoor environment.

  • Cough
  • Chest tightness
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Muscle aches
  • Sinus pain and infections
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulty in concentrating
  • Heightened sense of smell
  • Feelings of paralysis

Causes of Sick Building Syndrome

The EPA states:

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.

Environmental tobacco smoke contributes high levels of VOCs, other toxic compounds, and respirable particulate matter. Research shows that some VOCs can cause chronic and acute health effects at high concentrations, and some are known carcinogens. Low to moderate levels of multiple VOCs may also produce acute reactions.

Combustion products such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, as well as respirable particles, can come from unvented kerosene and gas space heaters, woodstoves, fireplaces and gas stoves.

Other sources of contaminants that can contribute to SBS

Biological contaminants:

  • Molds
  • Bacteria
  • Pollen
  • Viruses

Chemical contaminants from outdoor sources:

  • Motor vehicle exhausts
  • Plumbing vents
  • Building exhausts
  • Combustion products
  • Radon
  • Asbestos

There can be multiple sources of contamination in a living or working space, making it difficult to pinpoint the specific issue.

The EPA further states:

These elements may act in combination, and may supplement other complaints such as inadequate temperature, humidity, or lighting. Even after a building investigation, however, the specific causes of the complaints may remain unknown.

Treatment of SBS

Determine source of irritation

Dealing with nonspecific indoor contamination issues can be very difficult since multiple factors may play into the causes of health symptoms. It’s often like looking for the proverbial ‘needle in the haystack’ to find a particular pollutant unless it is overwhelmingly obvious. There are 3 basic steps to attempting to determine the source if indoor pollution:

  • Information gathering
  • Theoretical conclusions
  • Testing indoor air quality based on theoretical conclusions

While this may seem quite difficult and nonspecific…it really is!

Remediate or leave

If, after inspection and determination of pollution issues, remediation is possible, then the symptoms of SBS may dramatically subside. Usually, factors must be dealt with such as:

  • Pollutant source removal and replacement of nontoxic material
  • Ensuring proper ventilation and air circulation
  • Additional air cleaning filtration
  • Continued maintenance to ensure continued quality IAQ

If a person’s health condition doesn’t improve dramatically after resolving indoor air quality issues, he or she may need to seek the help of a medical professional knowledgeable in the area of environmental medicine and other toxin induced illnesses.

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