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EHSO's Sick Building Syndrome Information Pages

Sick Building Syndrome (SBS)


The term "sick building syndrome" (SBS), sometimes also called "Tight Building Syndrome" is used to describe circumstances in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in the building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified. The complaints may be localized in a particular room or zone, or may be widespread throughout the building. In contrast, the term "building related illness" (BRI) is used when symptoms of diagnosable illness are identified and can be attributed directly to airborne building contaminants. The most common cause is insufficient fresh air being brought in to flush out contamainants within the building; although occassionaly the airt intake can be a cause if the building's air inlets draw in air from a contaminanted source.

A 1984 World Health Organization Committee report suggested 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.

Indicators of SBS include:

  • Building occupants complain of symptoms associated with acute discomfort, e.g.: 
    • Irritated eyes
    • Runny nose
    • Nasal congestion
    • Scratchy throat
    • Coughing
    • Rashes
    • Fever
    • Nausea
    • Headaches
    • Dizziness
    • Confusion
    • Fatigue
    • Difficulty in concentrating
    • sensitivity to odors

    If you have asthma, air pollutants and irritants may trigger more frequent and severe attacks. If your symptoms disappear when you leave home for several hours but recur once you return, something in the air could be the irritant

  • The cause of the symptoms is not known.
  • Most of the complainants report relief soon after leaving the building.

Indicators of BRI include:

  • Building occupants complain of symptoms such as cough; chest tightness; fever, chills; and muscle aches
  • The symptoms can be clinically defined and have clearly identifiable causes.
  • Complainants may require prolonged recovery times after leaving the building.

It is important to note that complaints may result from other causes. These may include an illness contracted outside the building, acute sensitivity (e.g., allergies), job related stress or dissatisfaction, and other psychosocial factors. Nevertheless, studies show that symptoms may be caused or exacerbated by indoor air quality problems.

How Can I Know if a Health Reaction is Due to a Sick Building?

There are two components to identifying a sick building. The first is that the reactions or types of reactions are shared by several or many of the people who also inhabit the building. The second is that the reactions are triggered when in the building and are not triggered when not in the building. Individuals, however, may have greater sensitivities to some stimuli than do other people. For these individuals, something or things in the building may be triggering a reaction, but the building may not be "sick." This is often the case when a certain office or part of a building is rehabbed or reconfigured and decorated. That particular area of the building may create reactions in individuals, but the building itself is not problematic.

Causes of Sick Building Syndrome

The following have been cited causes of or contributing factors to sick building syndrome:

Inadequate ventilation: In the early and mid 1900's, building ventilation standards called for approximately 15 cubic feet per minute (cfm) of outside air for each building occupant, primarily to dilute and remove body odors. As a result of the 1973 oil embargo, however, national energy conservation measures called for a reduction in the amount of outdoor air provided for ventilation to 5 cfm per occupant. In many cases these reduced outdoor air ventilation rates were found to be inadequate to maintain the health and comfort of building occupants. Inadequate ventilation, which may also occur if heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems do not effectively distribute air to people in the building, is thought to be an important factor in SBS. In an effort to achieve acceptable IAQ while minimizing energy consumption, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recently revised its ventilation standard to provide a minimum of 15 cfm of outdoor air per person (20 cfm/person in office spaces). Up to 60 cfm/person may be required in some spaces (such as smoking lounges) depending on the activities that normally occur in that space (see ASHRAE Standard 62-1989).

Chemical contaminants from indoor sources: 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.

Chemical contaminants from outdoor sources: The outdoor air that enters a building can be a source of indoor air pollution. For example, pollutants from motor vehicle exhausts; plumbing vents, and building exhausts (e.g., bathrooms and kitchens) can enter the building through poorly located air intake vents, windows, and other openings. In addition, combustion products can enter a building from a nearby garage.

  • Home chemicals. Cleaning solutions can release toxic fumes. Never mix chemical products, especially chlorine bleach, with ammonia cleaner. Follow instructions for all home chemicals - including hobby materials such as solder, spray paint and paint stripper. Use them only in a well-ventilated area. Air out your home after the use of insecticides or pesticides.
  • Redecorating hazards. Newly installed carpet and other materials, such as paint, can give off irritating fumes. Before having carpet laid, ask the installer to unroll the carpet and air it out in a well-ventilated area for as long as possible. For both new carpet and fresh paint, open up your house and run exhaust fans during the first few days. Asbestos- and formaldehyde-containing building materials usually found in older homes also are potential sources of indoor air pollution.

Biological contaminants: Bacteria, molds, pollen, and viruses are types of biological contaminants. These contaminants may breed in stagnant water that has accumulated in ducts, humidifiers and drain pans, or where water has collected on ceiling tiles, carpeting, or insulation. Sometimes insects or bird droppings can be a source of biological contaminants. Physical symptoms related to biological contamination include cough, chest tightness, fever, chills, muscle aches, and allergic responses such as mucous membrane irritation and upper respiratory congestion. One indoor bacterium, Legionella, has caused both Legionnaire's Disease and Pontiac Fever. More information about biological contaminants

  • Dust mites. Dust mites - microscopic insects found in household dust - and their byproducts, along with mold, can cause severe allergy problems. Damp conditions can aggravate the problem. To keep dust mites at bay, vacuum and dust often. Put bedding in allergen-impermeable covers and wash bedding weekly in hot water. Information about dust mites and their control

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.

A Word About Radon and Asbestos...
SBS and BRI are associated with acute or immediate health problems; radon and asbestos cause long-term diseases which occur years after exposure, and are therefore not considered to be among the causes of sick buildings. This is not to say that the latter are not serious health risks; both should be included in any comprehensive evaluation of a building's IAQ.

Building Investigation Procedures

The goal of a building investigation is to identify and solve indoor air quality complaints in a way that prevents them from recurring and which avoids the creation of other problems. To achieve this goal, it is necessary for the investigator(s) to discover whether a complaint is actually related to indoor air quality, identify the cause of the complaint, and determine the most appropriate corrective actions.

An indoor air quality investigation procedure is best characterized as a cycle of information gathering, hypothesis formation, and hypothesis testing. It generally begins with a walkthrough inspection of the problem area to provide information about the four basic factors that influence indoor air quality:

  • the occupants
  • the HVAC system
  • possible pollutant pathways
  • possible contaminant sources.

Preparation for a walkthrough should include documenting easily obtainable information about the history of the building and of the complaints; identifying known HVAC zones and complaint areas; notifying occupants of the upcoming investigation; and, identifying key individuals needed for information and access. The walkthrough itself entails visual inspection of critical building areas and consultation with occupants and staff.

The initial walkthrough should allow the investigator to develop some possible explanations for the complaint. At this point, the investigator may have sufficient information to formulate a hypothesis, test the hypothesis, and see if the problem is solved. If it is, steps should be taken to ensure that it does not recur. However, if insufficient information is obtained from the walk through to construct a hypothesis, or if initial tests fail to reveal the problem, the investigator should move on to collect additional information to allow formulation of additional hypotheses. The process of formulating hypotheses, testing them, and evaluating them continues until the problem is solved.

Although air sampling for contaminants might seem to be the logical response to occupant complaints, it seldom provides information about possible causes. While certain basic measurements, e.g., temperature, relative humidity, CO2, and air movement, can provide a useful "snapshot" of current building conditions, sampling for specific pollutant concentrations is often not required to solve the problem and can even be misleading. Contaminant concentration levels rarely exceed existing standards and guidelines even when occupants continue to report health complaints. Air sampling should not be undertaken until considerable information on the factors listed above has been collected, and any sampling strategy should be based on a comprehensive understanding of how the building operates and the nature of the complaints.

What Can I Do?

The best way to deal with potential reactions to a sick building, is to understand the reasons a building may be "sick." The predominant culprit in most buildings is the flow of air. Fresh air and air movement patterns keep a building "flushed." As buildings become sealed or an interior is redesigned and changes the air flow, air may not move as freely and the contaminants can accumulate in the closed space. Poorly designed or maintained ventilation systems (HVAC) can also create problems, especially in situations where the pollutants can "buildup" over time due to poor air exchange.

The second cause can be a synergistic or combination interaction among low levels of specific pollutants. In these cases, when the specific pollutants are identified, the contributing factors are removed or altered to minimize the effect. For individuals, specific causes may be traced through "histories" of other situations in which the individual has had similar reactions.

Other factors that can contribute to the symptoms associated with "sick building syndrome" are some that can be relatively easily maintained. Too low or too high a humidity level or changes in relative humidity in a building can aggravate individuals. Too low humidity can increase dust and particulate indoor pollution, and too high humidity can provide a breeding ground for molds and fungi. Poor lighting can increase eye strain and result in symptoms similar to "sick building syndrome." Extreme temperature fluctuations in a building can serve to release VOCs and molds/fungi.

If you suspect a building of "making you sick," first track your reactions. What types of reactions, what are the triggers for the reaction, and do the reactions abate when you are not in the building? Next, examine the building for things you can control. Can you open windows or doors to improve air flow? Many types of adjustments that could alleviate sick building symptoms require major structural changes in building infrastructure. So, as an individual, you will have to find the things that you can control. Can you minimize the temperature changes within the building? Are there individual activities, such as the use of colognes or perfumes, soaps, shampoos, deodorants, perfumes in detergents, and air fresheners that can be controlled by individuals within the building? Finally, if you believe it is a building that is sick, gather the evidence from multiple occupants of the building - and if possible have all occupants meet with one or a few health care providers - and contact the owner of the building and your local health department.

Solutions to Sick Building Syndrome

Solutions to sick building syndrome usually include combinations of the following:

Pollutant source removal or modification is an effective approach to resolving an IAQ problem when sources are known and control is feasible. Examples include routine maintenance of HVAC systems, e.g., periodic cleaning or replacement of filters; replacement of water-stained ceiling tile and carpeting; institution of smoking restrictions; venting contaminant source emissions to the outdoors; storage and use of paints, adhesives, solvents, and pesticides in well ventilated areas, and use of these pollutant sources during periods of non-occupancy; and allowing time for building materials in new or remodeled areas to off-gas pollutants before occupancy. Several of these options may be exercised at one time.

Increasing ventilation rates and air distribution often can be a cost effective means of reducing indoor pollutant levels. HVAC systems should be designed, at a minimum, to meet ventilation standards in local building codes; however, many systems are not operated or maintained to ensure that these design ventilation rates are provided. In many buildings, IAQ can be improved by operating the HVAC system to at least its design standard, and to ASHRAE Standard 62-1989 if possible. When there are strong pollutant sources, local exhaust ventilation may be appropriate to exhaust contaminated air directly from the building. Local exhaust ventilation is particularly recommended to remove pollutants that accumulate in specific areas such as rest rooms, copy rooms, and printing facilities. (For a more detailed discussion of ventilation, read Indoor Air Facts No. 3R, Ventilation and Air Quality in Office Buildings.)

Air cleaning can be a useful adjunct to source control and ventilation but has certain limitations. Particle control devices such as the typical furnace filter are inexpensive but do not effectively capture small particles; high performance air filters capture the smaller, respirable particles but are relatively expensive to install and operate. Mechanical filters do not remove gaseous pollutants. Some specific gaseous pollutants may be removed by adsorbent beds, but these devices can be expensive and require frequent replacement of the adsorbent material. In sum, air cleaners can be useful, but have limited application.

Education and communication are important elements in both remedial and preventive indoor air quality management programs. When building occupants, management, and maintenance personnel fully communicate and understand the causes and consequences of IAQ problems, they can work more effectively together to prevent problems from occurring, or to solve them if they do.

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