Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) happens when occupants of a building begin exhibiting symptoms of illness that are directly related to the building itself.1
Sick Building Syndrome is a major concern to anyone responsible for the health and well-being of building occupants. That includes building and facilities managers who are motivated to protect occupant health, but who also recognize the personal and potential financial losses a “sick” building causes.
Following the COVID-19 pandemic, building health has become integral to safe onsite operations for thousands of businesses and the millions they employ.2
Having a healthy building has also become critical to attracting and retaining talent.3
A 2021 survey by Envoy found that up to 78% of employees do not plan to return to physical offices (if possible) or will find new employment if they feel that their workplace is not sufficiently addressing these critical health concerns.4
Read on to learn more about the symptoms that Sick Building Syndrome causes as well as what facilities can do to help address health concerns related to air quality in the workplace.
Types of indoor contaminants
Scientists have spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out the exact mechanisms that cause buildings to make occupants sick.
What they’ve discovered is that although the symptoms can vary, the cause is the same: indoor air pollutants linked to biological and chemical contaminants.5
This type of contaminant includes:
Many factors in a building’s environment can affect the source, proliferation, and spread of biological contaminants, including:
- temperature: warm, uncontrolled ambient indoor temperatures can encourage bacteria and mold to grow, which can result in illness and increase the risk of airborne infection spread6
- humidity: high levels of moisture can allow molds and bacteria to thrive, while extremely low humidity can dry out the airways and reduce the natural protection afforded by the mucus layers that line the nose, throat, and lungs7
- building hygiene: areas like bathrooms, lunchrooms, and gyms can quickly experience build-ups of infectious microorganisms if they’re not regularly cleaned or maintained
Chemical contaminants are also a major factor in making building occupants sick. These include:
- volatile organic compounds (VOCs): emitted by substances common in offices like paint, adhesives, disinfectants, and printing inks, some of which have been linked to cancer (such as formaldehyde)8
- tobacco smoke: thousands of chemicals and compounds in secondhand smoke can seep indoors and introduce dangerous air pollutants like carbon monoxide and ammonia9
- other sources of chemicals and odors, such as industrial cleaning agents and chemical products that account for over half of all chemical contaminants in many urban areas10
Sources of indoor contaminants
The sources of biological and chemical contaminants are usually indoors, though they can occasionally come from outside.
Excessive indoor moisture, for example, can breed molds, bacteria, viruses or other biological pollutants. A number of chemical pollutants can be produced by the building itself, such as improperly maintained appliances or heating systems.
Risk factors for poor indoor air quality
There are a number of risk factors when it comes to the contaminants that make buildings sick.
The possibilities of factors that can have a negative effect on office air quality are vast. Some of the more common risks include:
- poor ventilation rates and maintenance
- inadequate fresh air circulation
- high or fluctuating temperatures
- the presence and spread of fungal spores
- off-gassing of indoor pollutants, such as cleaning products or pesticides
- contaminants and particles brought in from outside, such as PM2.5 and ultrafine particles (UFPs)
When these risk factors have an effect on a building occupant, they can produce a number of symptoms, including:11
- irritation of eyes, throat, nose and skin
- headaches and dizziness
- shortness of breath and difficulty breathing
- loss of smell or taste
- infectious diseases like influenza or COVID-19
What to do about Sick Building Syndrome
Here’s what to do if you believe that your building occupants are experiencing symptoms related to Sick Building Syndrome:
- Find out what symptoms building occupants are suffering from. This can help determine what kinds of changes need to be made to improve indoor air quality. This will help start the process of making a building healthier.
- Discuss what changes may be needed to help address sources of symptoms. Meet with building stakeholders, including both facilities and management personnel, to identify possible sources of poor air quality and solutions to address occupant symptoms.
- Consult with air quality experts to identify specific air quality solutions. Identifying air quality problems and potential solutions can require specific expertise for proper implementation. The IQAir Clean Air Facility program consults with you during the entire process of identifying air pollution sources, implementing solutions, and monitoring air quality.
- After changes to a building have been made, discuss with occupants if their symptoms have improved. That can function as a gauge to determine if more changes are needed.
- Keep everyone informed. During investigations into contaminant sources as well as building upgrades, inform your stakeholders and workforce about efforts being made to improve the air quality, how long the process may take, and whether the changes are having an effect.
When addressing Sick Building Syndrome issues, you may want to consult professionals who can help determine what changes would best help the building.
The IQAir Clean Air Facility program includes comprehensive services to help buildings improve indoor air quality by establishing sustainable procedures for:
- installation and maintenance of customized air filtration systems
- verification of improved air quality with air quality monitoring
- continued renewal of Clean Air Facility status with adherence to program standards
- ongoing project management support for air filtration and air quality monitoring
- reporting and compliance tools to use air quality and other facility data to illustrate the human and financial impact of cleaner air
Solutions Engineers at IQAir are available to help customize systems to meet any office’s needs. IQAir air filtration technologies provide extremely high levels of air purification.
To learn more about how the Clean Air Facility program can help improve your building’s air quality: