The Headaches of Sick Building Syndrome

Sick building syndrome may sound like one of those nebulous conditions supported by questionable science.


Far from it.


Sick building syndrome (SBS) is, in fact, well defined and well documented — “a major occupational hazard,” as one research  paper put it, and a “growing problem in the United States and around the world,” according to another.


Sick building syndrome is a cluster of medical symptoms that are triggered by exposure to indoor air pollutants and linked to time spent in a particular building. In other words, if the symptoms clear up when folks leave the building, you’re looking at SBS.


Symptoms vary from person to person but include headaches, nausea, fatigue, itchy skin, throat irritation, watery eyes, impaired memory and concentration.


The syndrome should be on the radar of anyone responsible for the wellbeing of a building’s occupants. Whether your facility houses a school, nursing home, hospital, business, or organization, you can’t ignore a fact that’s becoming increasingly clear: the contemporary office environment can be toxic.


A general feeling of tiredness is often the most prevalent symptom, notes Occupational & Environmental Medicine, a BMJ journal: “It usually starts within a few hours of coming to work, and improves within minutes of leaving the building.” The typical headache is usually described as a dull “pressure on the head.” Also common: “the sensation of a blocked or stuffy nose” and “a feeling of dryness of the throat” that can be particularly problematic among those who spend most of their day on the phone.


For some employees, the symptoms are downright debilitating. “As soon as I entered the building, it felt like the breath was sucked out of me,” noted a New York web designer who suffered from SBS.


Others experience less acute but more constant symptoms. As another affected person put it: “The suffering becomes the norm. But once you move out of the sick building, THAT is when you really become aware of just how low the bar was set on the air quality in the toxic indoor environment you got used to suffering in.”


The misery of building occupants can get expensive for companies. Each year, sick building syndrome costs organizations an estimated $200 billion in worker productivity, efficiency, absenteeism, and higher staff turnover. By some estimates, companies annually lose 2% in productivity alone due to poor air quality. They may even face legal ramifications, as personal-injury lawsuits filed over sick building syndrome on the rise in some regions. Some companies have been forced to foot expensive bills for furniture replacement, partial or total evacuation of the building, remediation, and reconstruction.


Sick building syndrome is linked with exposure to two categories of pollutants: chemical contaminants (primarily gases emitted by furniture, adhesives, office machines, perfumes, and other products containing compounds refined from petroleum) and biological contaminants (bacteria, viruses, molds, pollen, insect droppings). The syndrome is particularly common in healthcare facilities, including nursing homes and hospitals.


Sometimes sick building syndrome is obvious — for example, when absenteeism spikes or when an odor is so unpleasant that everyone’s talking about how nauseous they feel. More often, indoor pollutants do their damage silently, and many employees suffer without consulting management, so it takes a while before people put two and two together.


Although many buildings today are designed and constructed with the goal of preventing sick building syndrome, older facilities — where the vast majority of companies and organizations are housed — must work with what they have. As Occupational & Environmental Medicine noted, sick building syndrome occurs even in buildings that “fully comply with current design standards in terms of temperature, ventilation, and lighting.”


In most buildings, occupants can’t escape exposure to indoor pollutants, but those in charge can take many steps to control them.


Among the various remedies for SBS — improving ventilation, replacing carpeting and furniture, and banning perfumes and other products that emit toxic gases — one effective and practical way is to clean the air.


In the past, air purification was either inadequate or too expensive, but technology has advanced to the point where cost-effective purification systems can remove the tiniest and most damaging toxic airborne particles, whether biological or chemical in origin.


For occupants of “sick” buildings — whether employees, students, hospital patients, or nursing home residents — the symptoms range from irritating to unbearable. Fortunately, for those in charge of facilities, air purification can be a relatively simple means of improvement.