Understanding Sick Building Syndrome

Sick building syndrome is a term that came into use in the 1970s. Sick building syndrome refers to a wide variety of different symptoms that are linked to the time an individual spends in a certain building. It may be difficult to diagnose the cause of symptoms as being related to sick building syndrome, but it is helpful to be aware that buildings may cause certain adverse health effects.

Identifying Sick Building Syndrome

If sick building syndrome is suspected to be at the root of health issues, a Health Hazard Evaluation can be performed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. This can help homeowners identify risk factors that may be adversely affecting indoor air quality. With this information, homeowners can take steps to rectify the problem, or can decide to relocate to reduce health risks.

Conditions that may alert home residents to the possibility of sick building syndrome may include:
•    Symptoms that occur seasonally when heat or air is used
•    Many home residents suffering from the same symptoms
•    Symptom resolution when residents leave the building
•    Symptom flare-ups when residents occupy the building or certain areas within the building

Common Sick Building Syndrome Symptoms

Sick building syndrome symptoms can be similar to allergy symptoms and include a dry cough, nose, eye, and throat irritation. Headaches, dizziness, and fatigue are sometimes experienced with sick building syndrome. Skin irritations and rashes may also occur. Sensitivity to scents is notably common with sick building syndrome and is thought to be caused by exposure to VOCs (volatile organic compounds) in the air.

Sick Building Syndrome versus Building Related Illness

Building-related illness is diagnosed when illness can be linked directly to specific pollutants in the air of a building and do not subside immediately when occupants leave the building. Legionnaires’ Disease is considered to be a building-related illness. Sick building syndrome causes are harder to identify but cause acute discomfort that is relieved shortly after occupants leave the building.

Improving Indoor Air Quality

In order to improve indoor air quality causing “Sick Building Syndrome,” homeowners should first consult with a professional and develop a plan to address indoor air quality issues.   Eliminating pollutants at the source, making sure that ventilation is adequate to dilute contaminants in the air and controlling filtration and moisture levels are all important steps. Making sure that vents are not blocked and that filters and ducts are replaced/cleaned regularly is important.

Homeowners can prevent high concentrations of contaminants from recurring by revising behaviors such as smoking in the home and paying attention to pollutants brought into the home. If sick building syndrome has been identified, homeowners should discuss with a professional the need to replace furniture, pillows, rugs, and other fabrics that may be harboring mold, pollen, and other contaminants.