What is Sick Building syndrome?
Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) is a term used to describe situations in which building occupants experience acute health symptoms that appear to be linked to the time spent in a building with no specific cause that can be identified. The complaints may be localized in a particular room or zone, or may be widespread throughout the building. SBS related complaints have increased in recent years and result when a building is operated or maintained in a manner that is inconsistent with its original design or prescribed operating procedures. Sometimes indoor air problems are a result of poor building design or occupant activities.
Occupants of sick building syndrome buildings complain of symptoms associated with acute discomfort, e.g., headache, eye, nose, or throat irritation, dry cough, dry or itchy skin, dizziness and nausea, difficulty in concentrating, fatigue and sensitivity to odors. The cause of the symptoms is not known. Most of the complainants report relief soon after leaving the building.
Many factors contribute to the sick building syndrome and sometimes it is difficult to pinpoint the cause.
- Inadequate ventilation: This implies insufficient outside air, insufficient airflow and inadequate circulation. An improper system design or operation, and occupant tampering with HVAC system may be the cause.
- Chemical contaminants from indoor sources: Copying and printing machines, computers, carpets, furnishings, cleaning materials, smoke, paints, adhesives, caulking, perfumes, hairsprays, solvents emit VOCs or volatile organic compounds that affect indoor air quality.
- Chemical contaminants from outdoor sources: Pollutants from motor vehicle exhausts; plumbing vents, and building exhausts (e.g., bathrooms and kitchens) can enter the building through poorly located air intake vents, windows, and other openings or a nearby garage.
- Biological contaminants: Bacteria, molds, pollen and viruses are types of biological contaminants. These contaminants may breed in humid and damp conditions, stagnant water that has accumulated in ducts, humidifiers and drain pans, or where water has collected on ceiling tiles, carpeting, or insulation. Sometimes insects or bird droppings can be a source of biological contaminants. Physical symptoms related to biological contamination include cough, chest tightness, fever, chills, muscle aches, and allergic responses such as mucous membrane irritation and upper respiratory congestion.
Possible Solutions to Sick Building Syndrome
In order to overcome sick building syndrome, a detailed indoor air quality investigation is a prime requirement. This involves identifying underlying causes and determining corrective actions. It begins with gathering information on the following:
- the occupants’ activities
- the HVAC system
- possible pollutant pathways
- possible contaminant sources.
Once the information is available, air sampling may be conducted to assess the level and types of chemical and biological contaminants. Moulds are serious biological contaminants that severely affect the indoor air quality. They can cause many health related symptoms like allergies, cough, cold, irritation, nausea, fatigue and fevers. Mould can be sampled using a simple air pump or a tape. You may refer the following link for a demonstration on Air Sampling for mould:
Primary assessment confirms presence and further tests reveal the identity of moulds. This could help draw conclusions on factors that contribute to sick building syndrome. Based on all information and evidence gathered, a strategic solution may be developed. Pollution source removal and air cleaning would be the basic approach. Proper ventilation rates and air distribution can help minimise SBS. Effective communication between building occupants, management and maintenance personnel can help find the causes and consequences of sick building syndrome. Awareness about indoor air quality issues can aid in overcoming the sick building syndrome.