Indoor Air Resources

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What You Need to Know About Sick Building Syndrome


By:   |   02.26.13

It’s the dirty little office secret that no one likes to talk about - is your building making you sick?

According to Forbes, Americans spend 90 percent of our time indoors. And what’s worse - in the majority of cases, air quality inside is far worse than it is outside.

Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) refers to cases in which building occupants experience serious health effects linked to the time they spend in a specific building, but in which no specific illness or cause can be identified.  The complaints can be localized in a particular room or office, or can be widespread throughout the building.  In some cases, health problems begin as workers enter their offices and lessen when they leave for the day - other times, symptoms continue until the cause of the illness is discovered and remedied.

Symptoms associated with SBS include headaches, respiratory complaints, vertigo, irritation and fatigue. Poor IAQ, inadequate lighting, noise pollution, vibration, temperature discomfort, and job-related psychological stress may cause or contribute to SBS. Sometimes groups of occupants can experience similar health problems over a relatively short period of time. These clusters of illness can result in anxiety among building occupants and are often related to poor IAQ.

If IAQ is the culprit behind SBS, there are steps the building’s management can take to solve the problem. The three primary reasons for IAQ-related problems in office buildings include sources of air pollution airborne contaminants, poorly designed, maintained, or operated ventilation systems, and uses of the building that were unanticipated or not planned for when the building was designed or renovated.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), some initial strategies to correct IAQ problems include:


-Improve air filtration to clean air from outside and inside the building. Consider upgrading air filters from MERV 8 to MERV 11 in order to remove as much particle waste as possible;

-Improve ventilation to provide outside air to occupants and to dilute and/or exhaust pollutants;

-Identify the sources of air pollution, then remove or reduce the source; and

-Control occupant exposure through administrative approaches such as scheduling contaminant-producing activities during off-hours.


Unfortunately, because the list of symptoms related to SBS is so varied, and often differs greatly from person to person, diagnosis of the problem and identification of the source can be difficult. If you suspect you or another occupant of your building may be suffering from SBS as a result of poor IAQ, your state or local health department may be able to tell you whether similar symptoms have been reported throughout the area, and whether the underlying cause may be related to IAQ.


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