Sickness of Buildings – Causes, Risks and Solutions

Environment is not only important for its own sake, but also as a resource for healthier living conditions and well-being. Poor environmental quality and its current and future impact on human health is a significant concern worldwide. Air pollution causes significant health problems. In fact, knowledge about the links between health and air quality has considerably improved in the last few decades. According to a WHO report, more than 30% of new and renovated buildings worldwide may generate severe complaints related to indoor air quality.

What is Sick Building Syndrome

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. SBS occurs mostly in office buildings however, it may also occur in other public buildings such as schools and libraries. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), SBS is highly suspected when the following conditions are present:

  • Temporal symptoms related to time spent in a specific building or part of a building.
  • Symptoms disappear when the individual is out of the building.
  • Seasonality of the symptoms (heating, cooling).
  • Similar complaints among co-workers.

Potential Causes

The exact mechanism by which a building is causing illness to occupants is still unknown. However, sickness of buildings results from a group of factors associated with effects of high concentrations of toxic pollutants present inside the building. In many cases, occupant's behaviors such as closing windows while using ACs in summer or central heating system in winter leads to an unhealthy indoor atmosphere due to poor ventilation,. Furthermore, poor building design, maintenance, and/or operation of the structure's ventilation system may also be at fault.

The ventilation system is often found to be at the core of the problem, and can itself be a source of irritants .The poor ventilation system can result in accumulation of pollutants within the building, in this case the indoor environment can often have lower air quality in comparison with the outdoor air, even in a heavily polluted city with vehicle exhaust and other pollutants. Moreover, very low levels of specific pollutants, such as VOCs, that are present inside a building may act in combination, to cause symptoms of illness.

Major Symptoms

Building occupants complain of SBS symptoms such as sensory irritation of the eyes, nose, throat; neurotoxic or general health problems; skin irritation; nonspecific hypersensitivity reactions; and odor and taste sensations.  In most cases, SBS symptoms will be relieved soon after the occupants leave the particular room or zone. However, there can be lingering effects of various neurotoxins, which may not clear up when the occupant leaves the building. In some cases, particularly in sensitive individuals, there can be long-term health effects.

There is a wide array of factors which can contribute to making a building 'sick'. Sick Building Syndrome can be caused by inadequate ventilation, chemical contaminants from indoor or outdoor sources, and/or biological contaminants. Many volatile organic compounds, which are considered chemical contaminants, can cause acute effects on the occupants of a building

Chemical Pollutants

Indoor chemical pollutants such as ozone resulted from printers, VOCs, fresh painting, cigarette smoke, off-gasing of the carpets and furniture, and the frequent use of chemical cleaners or fresheners. Outdoor chemical pollutants such as motor vehicle exhaust and building exhausts.

Biological Pollutants

Poor sanitary and cleaning practices, especially in public facilities, lead to the accumulation of biological contaminants such as pollen and dust mites', fungi, mold, and bacteria from the toilet. Besides, insect body parts are particularly troublesome allergens and are commonly implicated as contributors to SBS.

Physical factors

Major physical factors involved are weakness of ventilation, high temperatures, fluorescent lighting and electrical equipment, change in temperatures during the day, low humidity, poor lighting, dust, and use of display screens for long hours.

Associated Risks

It is important to be able to recognize the symptoms of SBS and to take action immediately, since misdiagnosis is one of the most critical issues. If you are experiencing SBS symptoms which remain even after leaving the building, this might be an indication of Building-related illness (BRI). SBS have long-term psychological effects in the form of depression, anxiety or paranoia and also leads to negative employee efficiency.

Plausible Solutions

To ensure elimination of SBS-related problems, several measures must be taken including improving the indoor air quality, as building sickness will diminish once the pollutant source is removed or modified.  Another key measure is repairing or replacement of ventilation system to meet ventilation standards in the local building codes. It is also important to improve cleaning practices at public spaces, taking to consideration that detergents shall be stored in well-ventilated areas and isolated from other materials. Other practices include frequent checking of heating, cooling and air conditioning systems, avoiding synthetic fabrics, minimizing the use of electronic items and unplugging idle devices, smoking restrictions, allowing time for building material in a new building to off-gas pollutants before occupancy.

Fortunately, nature has very effective tools for air purifying, for instance sun's rays have a magical effect in cleaning the air. It is worthwhile to focus on efficient and periodic natural ventilation during the day, even during winter time. Additionally, specific species of plants not only purify the indoor air quality, but also have a positive effect on psychological health by increasing the concentration and relief of fatigue and stress. Indoor plants that are effective at air purification include Aloe vera, Boston fern, Chinese evergreen, Christmas cactus, Chrysanthemum and daisies.

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About Nura A. Abboud

Nura A. Abboud is an environmental activist and Founder of the Jordanian Society for Microbial Biodiversity (JMB), the only NGO in the Middle East concerning the microbial biodiversity. Nura specializes in molecular biology, biological sciences, microbial biodiversity, genetic fingerprinting and medical technologies. Her vision is to establish an eco-research center in the astonishing desert south of Jordan. She has received several scholarships and awards including honorary doctorate in Environmental leadership.
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