Sick Building Syndrome - It's Up In The [Hospital] Air

It’s a terrible irony: around the globe, countless buildings that were designed for healing are actually making their occupants sick.


Studies show that sick building syndrome (SBS), considered a “a major occupational hazard,” may be especially prevalent among employees in healthcare facilities.


Among the symptoms experienced by nurses and other healthcare workers: headaches, nausea, itchy skin, throat irritation, watery eyes, and impaired concentration.


“SBS manifests as weakness and fatigue, reduced productivity and increased absence from work,” according to a study of sick building syndrome among nurses, published in the Global Journal of Health Science. “Considering the nurse’s important role in saving the lives of patients and hospital infection control, this is notable.”


To say the least! Certainly anyone responsible for the wellbeing of a healthcare facility’s employees should be aware of SBS symptoms and the potential for hospitals and nursing homes to trigger them.


Air pollution in office buildings has drawn much attention and is easier to research than in the hospital environment; the presence of infected patients, the common use of latex, as well as a highly mobile workforce make it more challenging for scientists to design high-quality studies on SBS in hospitals.


Nonetheless, a number of careful studies have assessed sick building syndrome in the healthcare arena and concluded it’s a problem.


For example, a study examining three Iranian hospitals found that 86% of nurses experienced sick building syndrome, with headache and fatigue among the most common symptoms reported. In addition, among those nurses reporting SBS symptoms, 90.7% sensed a foul odor coming from toilets, medicines, hospital kitchens, and chlorine.


SBS in healthcare facilities appears to be global concern. A hospital study in Spain found
“unpleasant odor, irritation and watery eyes, sore throat, redness and inflammation of the skin” as the most common symptoms. One Swedish study noted, “the high complaint rate . . . shows a need to improve the indoor environment in hospitals.” Another Swedish study concluded that “more focus is needed on the indoor environment in schools and day care centres, hospitals and nursing homes for elderly.”


Sick building syndrome is well known to be caused by a combination of biological pollutants (such as bacteria, viruses, and molds) and chemical contaminants (mainly volatile organic compounds, aka VOCs, emitted by furniture, carpeting, adhesives, cleaning solutions, and personal-care products).


Given the ubiquity of drugs, detergents, disinfectants, and solvents in hospitals and nursing homes — not to mention the virus and bacteria particles floating about — it is hardly surprising that SBS is common in the healthcare environment.


In the United States, most hospitals are older buildings, not designed to minimize the effects of high-VOC building materials, gases from anesthesia, lab chemicals, dust from renovations, and the like. Hospital floors are typically made of vinyl tile, requiring continuous waxing and stripping.


As sick building syndrome and the hazards of indoor air pollution gain more attention, green building will become the norm. Newly built hospitals are using low-VOC construction materials and installing roof gardens, windows that open, and natural flooring that can be cleaned with just soap and water. At some point in the distant future, sick building syndrome may become a thing of the past.


But for now, hospitals, nursing homes, and other healthcare facilities must work with they have.


Among the various remedies for SBS — improving ventilation, banning perfumes and VOC-emitting products, replacing carpeting and furniture, and so on — the most effective and practical may be 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.


At this point, most of us can’t escape exposure to indoor pollutants. However, those in charge of healthcare facilities can take steps to control the toxins that make its highly valuable employees ill.