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What Is Sick Building Syndrome?

What Is Sick Building Syndrome?
The EPA says it’s a real thing, so maybe it’s time to learn how ventilation and contaminants can make you sick when you stay indoors.

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I’m Cristen Conger and you can consider this my letter of protest regarding these horrible working conditions!

That’s right boss, I’m talking about “Sick Building Syndrome.”

The Environmental Protection Agency says Sick Building Syndrome is real. They define it as (and I quote) “a situation where a building’s occupants experience discomforting health effects, even though no specific cause can be found.”

You know what else they say? That 30 percent of all office buildings in the United States could be sick.

That’s not just offices either. SBS is a problem in schools, libraries and even people’s homes.

In the United States, the average person spends 80 to 90 percent of their time indoors. You know what else? Offices with mechanical ventilation and without open windows are at more risk.

“Well what are the symptoms?” you might have asked if you cared about my well being,

Headaches, dizziness, nausea, pain, fatigue, shortness of breath, coughing… and irritation of the throat, nose, skin and eyes.

You know what that does? It reduces work efficiency and increases absenteeism.

Let me stop you before you tell me that Tina in Accounting doesn’t have these symptoms, because inhabitants sharing the same office space are known to experience different signs of the illness.

Many people (like Tina) are either misdiagnosed or don’t even seek help. So you better believe public health officials when they say that “seemingly minor complaints” should be taken seriously.

Are we on the same page now? Good, because researchers still haven’t identified a single cause for SBS. Most say it’s likely a combination of things like chemical and biological contaminants, along with poor air ventilation.

See, during an oil embargo in the 1970s, buildings in the U.S. were made more airtight so the nation could conserve energy (and building owners could cut costs).

Sealing up buildings like this reduced ventilation down to 5 cubic feet per minute per person. But! The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers (yes, that’s a thing) has revised their modern ventilation standards to a minimum of 15 cubic feet per minute per person.

Exterior pollutants like exhaust and plumbing fumes – containing things like carbon monoxide, radon, formaldehyde and asbestos – can all enter through poorly located intake vents.

While inside, we’re circulating volatile organic compounds from adhesives, carpeting, cleaning agents, synthetic fragrances and even copy machines.

What to do, what to do? Well, some governments have established guidelines for acceptable levels of gaseous indoor air pollutants. So you could start by increasing ventilation rates, removing pollutant sources and cleaning the air. The EPA also recommends routine maintenance of HVAC systems.

Some houseplants might help too. A study out of the University of Cologne in Germany found that certain plants can absorb air pollutants.

Stanitski-Martin, D. (2015). Sick building syndrome (SBS). Salem Press Encyclopedia,
Joshi, S. M. (2008). The sick building syndrome. Indian Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 12(2), 61–64.
Marmot, A. F., Eley, J., Stafford, M., Stansfeld, S. A., Warwick, E., & Marmot, M. G. (2006). Building health: an epidemiological study of “sick building syndrome” in the Whitehall II study. Occupational and Environmental Medicine,63(4), 283–289.