Sick building syndrome is a broad label that covers a range of symptoms thought to be triggered when the sufferer spends time in a particular building. Symptoms range from specific symptoms such as itchy eyes, skin rashes, and nasal allergy symptoms, to more vague symptoms such as fatigue, aches and pains, and sensitivity to odours.
The term “sick building syndrome”, was first coined in the 1970s, and its recognition at this time may in part be attributable to the increasing presence of electronic equipment and other factors. It is used when the symptoms of a significant number of people occupying a particular building, are associated with their presence in that building. In most cases sick building syndrome occurs in office buildings, although it may also occur in other communal buildings such as schools and apartment buildings.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), sick building syndrome is strongly suspected when the following circumstances are present:
- Symptoms are temporally related to time spent in a particular building or part of a building
- Symptoms resolve when the individual is not in the building
- Symptoms recur seasonally (heating, cooling)
- Co-workers, peers have noted similar complaints
The circumstances most suggestive of sick building syndrome are presence of common symptoms amongst a group of building occupants that are present when they are in the building and absent when they are not in the building.
The EPA highlights the distinction between sick building syndrome and building related illness. The latter term is used for situations in which signs and symptoms of diagnosable illness are readily identified and can be attributed directly to specific airborne building contaminants. Examples of building related illnesses are Legionnaires’ Disease and hypersensitivity pneumonitis. In contrast, the cause(s) of symptoms in cases of sick building syndrome are often hard to pin down and in many cases a range of factors may contribute to the situation. When a sick building is identified an extensive investigation by people such as the employer, building owner or manager, building investigation specialist, and if necessary, local medical authority epidemiologists and other public health officials, is often required.
Once a sick building has been investigated various measures must be taken to ensure the cause(s) are removed to make it safe for the occupants.
Although the problem of sick building syndrome has been recognized for decades, statistics regarding the prevalence of the problem are limited. A World Health Organization (WHO) report from 1984 suggested that up to 30% of new and renovated buildings worldwide may generate excessive complaints related to indoor air quality (1). This high rate may be associated with modern mass produced construction materials that tend to offgas irritating volatile organic chemicals (VOCs). In a US report, of office workers questioned at random, 24% reported air quality problems in their work place, and 20% believed this harmed their ability to do their job effectively (2).
Symptoms of Sick Building Syndrome
Sick building syndrome involves a variety of seemingly unrelated symptoms, much like other unexplained conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), and Gulf War syndrome (GWS) do. Some authorities have attempted to separate the symptoms into distinct categories such as ‘allergic’ and ‘non-allergic’, or ‘chemical related’ and ‘microbe related’. Since there is yet no concensus on these distinctions, the common symptoms of SBS are listed here together:
- Eye, nose, and throat irritation
- Dry cough
- Dry, itchy skin, rashes
- Dizziness and nausea
- Difficulty in concentrating
- Sensitivity to odours
Sensitivity to odours is the definitive symptom of the related condition multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). Both SBS and MCS are thought, at least in part, to be due to exposure to VOC’s i the air.
Causes of Sick Building Syndrome
Although in many cases the exact mechanism by which a building, or substances within the building, are causing the occupants to become ill is unknown, the problem areas can usually be identified and remedial action taken.
In many SBS cases poor building design, maintenance, and/or operation of the structure’s ventilation system may be at fault (3). The ventilation system in particular is often found to be at the heart of the problem, and can itself be a source of irritants. In addition, a poor ventilation system can result in a buildup of pollutants within the building, in which case the indoor environment can often have air quality much lower than the outdoor air, even in a heavily polluted city centre with it’s clouds of vehicle exhaust and other pollutants. Interior design factors, such as the arrangement of individual offices and cubicles, may also interfere with efficient functioning of ventilation systems. Essentially poor office design and maintenance of the ventilation system can amplify the negative health effects of various factors, both biological and chemicals, that we’ll discuss below.
Reprinted source: SBS
Chemical Sensitivity and Sick-Building Syndrome (by Yukio Yanagisawa, Hiroshi Yoshino, Satoshi Ishikawa, Mikio Miyata)
Hipersensibilidad química múltiple en el síndrome del edificio enfermo and English translation, Multiple chemical sensitivity under sick-building syndrome