Experts: Sick Building Syndrome a reality


It’s a common occurrence in most offices. One person is out sick, then another. Usually, we chalk it up to cold and flu season, or some “bug” going around the office. But could it actually be the office making you sick?

It might be.

Since the 1970’s, medical experts have tracked the phenomenon which has come to be known as Sick Building Syndrome (SBS), in which a constellation of symptoms from a building’s occupants are similar but can’t be definitively tracked to a single source. Fatigue, headache, itchy skin and irritated nose and throat, along with eye irritation are the most common complaints, with some symptoms becoming so severe that workers can’t even enter the office without being immediately afflicted.

Though experts have tried to get a line on a single cause, many agree it has a strong tie to poor air circulation and have a plausible explanation why that is fueling cases of SBS.


Timeline of SBS

Early in the 70s, there was a push to make buildings more energy efficient. That meant better insulation, better sealed buildings with non-opening windows in which heat couldn’t easily escape. At the same time, many building codes were changed, lowering ventilation standard. Not long after, doctors started to notice odd clusters of illness, some easily traced to a source and others not.

The most famous early case came during a 1976 American Legion conference in Philadelphia when 182 attendees fell ill. Months of investigation and lab work uncovered a never-before-seen bacterial organism, Legionella pneumophila, which had bloomed in the warm water in a building’s cooling towers. When mists from that water were conducted into a building via the ventilation system, investigators found, mass illness resulted.

By 1984, the World Health Organization (WHO) was on the case of mass illnesses in building and started looking at modern structures. The WHO reported that year that up to 30 percent of new and remodeled buildings were found to have poor indoor air quality, traceable in many cases to new air-tight designs, HVAC systems and chemical seepage from new building materials.

A decade later, experts began to also look at mold and fungus and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a report that said the air in some buildings was up to 100 times dirtier than outside air.

Since then, codes have been changed to increase circulation and lessen hazards, but the phenomenon continues.

According to the EPA, there are steps that workers can take to help keep the air in your workplace as fresh as possible and avoid becoming an SBS statistic. Among them:

  • Don’t block air vents or grilles.
  • Smokers shouldn’t light up inside, of course, but they should also avoid entryways – like Ohio law requires – and fresh air intake ducts.
  • Take care of your office plants. Dusty, dying plants don’t help the air quality in your office, and over-watered plants can develop mold. If you’re looking for a plant to decorate the office, consider the spider plant (chlorophytium comosum), which has the ability to quickly scour a wide variety of toxins from air. Stay away from flowering plants that may contribute pollen to your office’s air.
  • Get rid of garbage promptly to prevent odors and biological contamination.
  • Store food properly and clean the refrigerator out frequently to prevent odors and mold.