If you’ve ever walked into a building and quickly found yourself experiencing a headache, or watery eyes, a runny nose or even an asthma attack, you might have just walked into a building that, according to the EPA, is actually…sick. The EPA Fact Sheet on “Sick Building Syndrome” (SBS) states the term 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 when no specific illness or cause can be identified. Sick Building Syndrome can create a feeling of ill health, increase sickness absenteeism and cause a decrease in productivity of workers in that building.
The reported symptoms, which are said to subside after the occupant leaves the building, include: eye, nose, and throat irritation; neurotoxic effects such as headaches, fatigue, and irritability; asthma and asthma-like symptoms; skin dryness and irritation; gastrointestinal complaints and more.
Although these same symptoms could result from an array of other causes, including illnesses contracted outside the building, allergies, excessive stress or dissatisfaction, and other psychosocial factors. Nevertheless, studies show that symptoms may be caused or exacerbated by indoor air pollution.
Most indoor air pollution comes from sources inside the building. 1 For example, adhesives, carpeting, upholstery, manufactured wood products, copy machines, pesticides, and cleaning agents may emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including formaldehyde. Inadequate ventilation, chemical contaminants, and bioaerosols are other common characteristics of poor indoor environments.
In fact, the fungus Stachybotrys chartarum has been identified as a serious problem in homes and buildings harboring mold and one of the causes of “sick building syndrome.”2 To prevent indoor contamination by Stachybotrys and other molds, aggressive action must be taken to correct moisture problems. Pollutant source removal or modification is an effective approach to resolving an indoor air quality problem when sources are known and control is feasible.
Isolating particular environmental features responsible for the symptoms has proved difficult. One report concluded the physical environment of office buildings appears to be less important than features of the psychosocial work environment in explaining differences in the prevalence of symptoms. 3 So it seems a combination of environmental sensitivity and excessive stress can greatly contribute to not feeling well in the workplace or any place.
If you work in a sick building, talk to the building supervisor about your concerns. If enough people have reported having similar symptoms, the building management team might be more motivated to take drastic steps to fix the problem. If you’ve installed new carpet, cabinetry, recently repainted, or purchased new furniture, you might begins to experience some of the “sick building” symptoms.
Opening windows to let in fresh air can help, as can using a high-quality air purifying unit. These units are effective at removing irritants and contaminants – as well as dust, dander and allergens – from the air in your home.
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Indoor Air Facts No. 4 Sick Building Syndrome. (http://www.epa.gov/iaq/pdfs/sick_building_factsheet.pdf)
- Nelson, B.D. 2001. Stachybotrys chartarum: The Toxic Indoor Mold. (http://www.apsnet.org/publications/apsnetfeatures/Pages/Stachybotrys.aspx)
- The National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Whitehall II Study. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16556750?dopt=Abstract)