What Is Sick Building Syndrome

When I first came across the term “sick building syndrome,” I didn’t think it was real. I thought it was something somebody made up to scare customers, like how “halitosis” was a term invented by mouthwash companies to make people think their product protected against some deadly disease, even though all they were talking about was bad breath. This was not the case, however.

Sick building syndrome is an official term used by the EPA, but what is it? SBS describes a series of generalized symptoms associated with poor indoor air quality. It’s not specifically a disease, but more of a collection of possible health impacts that indoor air pollution can have on people.

There are a couple of aspects to recognize it.  First, people inside the building complain of a number of symptoms that bring them discomfort. Secondly, the exact cause of the symptoms isn’t immediately apparent and aren’t tied to a specific disease. And finally, people report relief from symptoms as soon as they leave the building. This is in contrast to what the EPA calls Building Related Illness, where the symptoms are associated with a specific disease.

The bulk of my research comes from a Harvard study, which I will summarize for easy reading, as well as provide some additional context and information.

What Are The Symptoms of Sick Building Syndrome?

The exact symptoms of Sick Building Syndrome are broad, but usually include some or all of the following:

  • headache
  • eye, nose, and/or throat irritation
  • dry cough
  • dry or itchy skin
  • dizziness and nausea
  • difficulty concentrating
  • fatigue
  • sensitivity to odors

The symptoms can be mild or severe, in some cases becoming so serious that people need to spend an extended period of time away from the building to recover. While the symptoms are mostly associated with indoor air quality, there may also be a psychosomatic component to it as well. People may associate the symptoms with the building itself. Other things can play into making these symptoms worse, including noise pollution, poor lighting, stress from feeling unsafe, uncomfortable temperatures inside the building and humidity.

How Common is Sick Building Syndrome?

The EPA estimates that as many as 1 in 4 buildings in the US might be classified as sick buildings. They believe this affects up to 64 million workers around the country every year. So, it’s a lot.

How Serious Is it?

How serious it is can depend on a lot of different things, but it can be very serious if it’s not taken care of. The EPA believes that 20% of all illnesses are caused or aggravated by indoor air pollution and list it as one of the top five environmental risks to public health.

What is the Cost to Businesses

SBS costs businesses a lot more money than you might think. Between compensation, lawsuits, and lost productivity, it costs businesses as much as $168 billion per year. With as many as 14 million work days taken off due to air pollution aggravated asthma alone, drops in productivity come to as much as $60 billion. It can be quite expensive.

Proper ventilation helps reduce the effects of sick building syndromeProper Ventilation Is The Biggest Factor

The biggest cause of SBS is poor ventilation. If the air in a building cannot properly circulate, then air pollution gets trapped inside and builds up over time. This means the air has to keep circulating. Fully 2/3 of the cases of indoor air pollution problems is caused by an inefficient HVAC and air duct system. This can be because of inadequate ventilation, poor design, or even just letting the system get dirty.

Just .042 inches of dirt on the HVAC heating/cooling coils can decrease their efficiency by as much as 21%, which can increase the energy bill by a lot of money. The build-up of dust in the air ducts will also interfere with the airflow, further reducing the efficiency. Keeping the HVAC and air ducts clean can save a company as much as $22,000 a year, just from the improvement on efficiency. This will also remove more indoor air pollution from the building, leading to an overall improvement in employee health, which immensely improves productivity.

Humidity Control Also Matters

Another big contributor to SBS is the humidity and it affects people in multiple ways. The most direct way is that humidity can mess with our internal temperature regulation. If the air is too humid, it’s harder for our sweat to evaporate, which means we lose the evaporative cooling effect. This can cause a feeling of general unwellness on its own, but can also increase risk of heat stroke if it gets too warm.

Indirectly, humidity is also a factor in mold growth. Mold requires a certain level of humidity to spread. This can add to the indoor air pollution, as mold reproduces by releasing spores into the air. Depending on the type of mold, the effects of the spores can range from allergic reactions, to actual poisoning from toxins in the spores themselves. Whether toxic or not, mold spores will contribute to SBS. This makes it very important to manage the humidity in your building.

Noise Pollution and Temperature Regulation

It’s important to keep the work environment comfortable to get the best productivity. In an indirect way, noise pollution can play into SBS. Excessive noise has been linked to hypertension and stress, which can negatively impact health. Additionally, if there’s a lot of noise, people have to raise their voice to be heard. Raising one’s voice stresses the vocal cords and can exacerbate throat irritation.

Keeping the temperature comfortable also affects health. Raising the body temperature is one way our immune system fights infection, so if it gets too hot in a building, people may feel feverish without actually being sick. If it gets too cold, our body puts more energy into heating itself up, which makes it hard to concentrate and makes us feel tired. Keeping your HVAC and air ducts clean will improve the efficiency of your heating and cooling, allowing you to solve these problems for less money.

If you want to further improve on energy efficiency and also lessen noise pollution from the outside, you can do so through proper insulation. This will help keep the building from loosing or gaining heat from outside, allowing you to get more from HVAC while running it less. The extra layer can also reduce noise from outside.

security cameras can help employees feel safeMaking Employees Feel Safe

It’s important for employees to feel safe in the workplace. When we don’t feel safe, we will always be on the lookout. This puts us in a small scale state of fight or flight response. Before we can calm down, we need to take steps to ensure our own safety. Because we’re expending more energy to calm down, it affects productivity and the stress of it affects our health. To mitigate this, a business should take steps to ensure their employees’ sense of safety. Security cameras placed outside the building can make people feel more secure. You should also have well-practiced emergency plans so people feel like they know what to do if something happens. Having safety inspections for you building and displaying the certification of safety will also let employees know the building is safe.

Lighting can also play a role in this. People are very dependent on sight and if a building has inadequate lighting, they feel uncomfortable. Furthermore, light levels are very much tied to the regulation of our sleep cycles. For people who work indoors, proper lighting can keep their internal clock on track during the day. Getting proper sleep allows people to be more alert and clear-headed. If they don’t get proper sleep because the poor lighting of the building the work in disrupts their internal clock, they’ll be tired and more prone to confusion. In that state of mind, they’ll be more stressed and uncomfortable, which makes all the other problems worse.

Sick Building Syndrome is an Employer’s Responsibility

a sick man lying on a couch

sick building syndrome can keep employees from being able to work.

While Sick Building Syndrome can seriously impact a business, it’s fortunately something that can be controlled. There are many ways a business owner can make sure their building is conducive to good health. From proper lighting, to a clean and efficient HVAC system, all of these aspects are manageable if you know what to do. Hopefully, the information I’ve provided will be helpful in this regard.

Remember that it’s easier to prevent the problem than correct it. As I said, there is a possible psychosomatic component to SBS. If people associate your building with the symptoms, they may continue to experience them even after steps are taken to correct the problem. Mind over matter, as they say. So it’s better to take these steps now rather than wait until people start reporting problems.

Author: RJ