What is sick building syndrome?

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Imagine going to work every day and feeling fatigued, nauseated, dizzy and uncomfortable. You can barely keep your eyes open. You try to cough quietly and shake the itch from the back of your throat.

For many, these symptoms become part of the daily routine when they’re working or living in facilities with sick building syndrome.

Sick building syndrome is a culmination of factors, often related to indoor air quality, which result in occupants experiencing short- and long-term health symptoms from spending time in a building. While many facilities today are designed with health and sustainability in mind, older and remodeled buildings often contain materials or elements that can be a detriment to health.

What causes sick building syndrome?

Sick building syndrome can be caused by biological and chemical factors, including toxic building materials such as formaldehyde, poor indoor air quality, inadequate ventilation, mold exposure, contamination from outdoor pollution or a combination of such factors. Over time, many buildings develop long-term problems that result in sick building syndrome, because the building is not operated and maintained as originally designed, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Historically, buildings have become increasingly airtight in order to save energy and lower heating and cooling costs. However, when air is not properly circulated to account for this “tightness,” it results in unhealthy indoor air quality and can cause additional problems with humidity and mold buildup. This design philosophy is one main contributor to sick building syndrome.

What are the symptoms?

In sick buildings, the day-to-day symptoms occupants experience may seem to alleviate or completely disappear after leaving the premises, especially if occupants vacate for an extended period of time.

Common short-term symptoms include fatigue, headaches, dizziness, increase in asthma attacks, cold and flu-like experiences, coughing, nausea and eye and throat irritation. Taking steps to improve indoor air quality can greatly reduce these symptoms.

What is the difference between sick building syndrome and a building-related disease?

Whereas sick building syndrome causes immediate symptoms that can’t necessarily be traced to one specific source, a building-related disease has an identifiable cause. HealthDay notes that one of the most famous examples of a building-related disease is Legionnaire’s disease, which can be spread through air conditioning or ventilation systems if they are not properly maintained.

Sick building syndrome, while more general, can cause performance problems both at school and in workplaces. One key to eliminating this problem is to improve indoor air quality by installing air purifiers, ensuring adequate ventilation, avoiding the use of toxic cleaning agents and regulating humidity and airflow.