Sick building syndrome or SBS refers to a condition whereby inhabitants of the room or building experience illness or discomfort directly linked to the time they spend in the aforementioned area.
Occupants of the ‘sick building’ will experience allergy symptoms but feel much better when not in the building. Sometimes, people may only feel sickly when in a particular room or space.
If left unregulated, occupants of the building can potentially be left with more serious health issues. For example, extended exposure to mould can cause respiratory problems, while exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can cause neurological and liver damage.
Potential causes of SBS
Various factors, including elevated levels of indoor air pollution such as mould, volatile organic compounds, pesticides and others, can cause sick building syndrome. Oftentimes, sick building syndrome is caused by a combination of factors, with poor indoor air quality (IAQ) being at the helm of the issue.
The contaminants causing poor IAQ can come from indoor sources (i.e. smoke from cooking, pesticides, etc.) or outdoor sources (i.e. floating dust or debris, nitrogen oxide from cars, ozone and other gases etc.)With that being said, not every ‘sick building’ will share the same contributing factor, but a 2008 study titled ‘The sick building syndrome’ identified common causes of SBS, which are as follows:
This can be from outdoor or indoor sources, including contaminants from vehicle exhausts, plumbing vents or building exhausts that can enter the building from poorly located air intake vents or windows. The most common indoor sources are VOCs from everyday household goods such as paint and cleaning agents. Tobacco smoke, fireplaces and unvented space heaters also increase chemical contamination.
The most common contaminant in this category includes pollen, bacteria, viruses, fungus and mould that easily spread in humid conditions. Airborne diseases can rapidly spread in buildings or offices that are densely populated.
In some workplaces, sick building syndrome is not caused by air pollutants or poor ventilation but instead has to do with the workplace environment. Excessive stress, poor relationships and poor communication methods have been associated with SBS. Being in an environment that is not conducive to happiness can affect our physical health.
Improper or inadequate ventilation in a building will allow indoor air pollutants, mainly VOCs and carbon dioxide, to build up and cause occupants to feel discomfort and ill. When paired with the contaminants above, the effects are multiplied.
Signs and symptoms of SBS
Symptoms of SBS are often seen in people with clerical jobs compared to managerial jobs because the latter usually have better working conditions. Naturally ventilated buildings don’t usually suffer from SBS compared to air conditioned buildings.
As mentioned, the causes and contaminants that lead to SBS can vary from one building to the next. Depending on the cause of this syndrome, different symptoms would be felt by the occupants of the building.
Some common symptoms of SBS include
- Eye, nose and throat irritation
- Respiratory problems, including wheezing and difficulty breathing
- Fatigue and weakness
- Skin irritation
- Concentration problems
Do note that the symptoms will only be felt when individuals are within the building premises.
Treatment and prevention
Treating SBS will first require a determination of the underlying cause of the symptoms. Generally, steps that can be taken to alleviate SBS symptoms include
- Improving indoor air quality by increasing ventilation or air treatment appliances such as HEPA air purifiers to remove airborne contaminants or dehumidifiers to regulate humidity levels.
- Changing the work environment by improving lighting, adding plants or changing the room’s layout can reduce SBS symptoms.
- Reducing stress at the workplace by taking regular breaks, stretching out and getting some fresh air will help alleviate SBS symptoms caused by psychological factors.
- If symptoms persist, it might be necessary to seek medical attention to determine the exact cause and receive appropriate treatment.
When it comes to preventing SBS, improving indoor air quality is the way to go. Once this has been achieved, occupants of the building should also
- Reduce exposure to environmental toxins
- Address water damage as mould can spread from this excess moisture
- Encourage regular breaks for a healthier workplace
- Monitor the workplace for signs and symptoms of SBS and address them immediately
By following these steps, SBS can be effectively reduced and contribute to improved the health and well-being of the occupants.
Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is for general reference only. Please seek advice from professionals according to your needs.