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Sick Building Syndrome

When it All Started 

During a 1976 American Legion Convention at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia, 182 conventioneers mysteriously contracted a form of pneumonia in which 29 members died from the disease. It was later traced to a bacterium (Legionella Pneumophila) found in the air conditioning system of the hotel. 

What is Sick Building Syndrome and What are the Symptoms? 

There are established guidelines of acceptability for what is referred to as Indoor Air Quality. It basically states that the air is acceptable if 80 percent of the occupants express no dissatisfaction with the air quality. 

Unfortunately, with Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) or the more specific term “Building-Related Occupant Complaint Syndrome” (BROCS) it is often difficult to pinpoint a specific cause. Typically, the occupants of a building develop health problems due to the accumulation of unknown contaminants usually but not always coming from the indoor air. 

Some of the symptoms associated with this condition include dry or irritated mucous membranes, headaches, dry or itchy skin, nausea, lethargy and general malaise. The symptoms would usually appear after working in the building for a couple of hours and then improve after leaving the building for a period of time.  

What is the Incidence of Sick Building Syndrome? 

According to a 1996 study done at Cornell University it was found that one of every five workers in one of every 35 buildings had complained of symptoms of SBS. The potential risk to employers is increased workers compensation claims, law suits and lowered employee productivity. 

What are Some Causes of Sick Building Syndrome? 

The condition can be caused by a complex combination of several factors including micro organisms, building design and the off gassing of building materials, cleaning agents and copy machines. Part of the problem has been the design of airtight buildings and chemical based building materials. In some cases the problem is caused by the intake of polluted air from the outside. 

Prevention and Alleviation 

Prevention begins in the construction phase by having air intakes built away from concentrated sources of air pollution or fumes. Maintenance of HVAC systems is crucial as is keeping the building clean and dry. Shelving should be covered and surfaces should be wiped frequently. Buildings should be surveyed annually for common pollutants such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, air-borne particulates and humidity levels.  

Alleviation of the problem first requires an accurate diagnosis before it can adequately be attacked. The necessary solution can be a massive expense considering that the consulting services for SBS represent a two billion dollar a year business. It is therefore important to get the problem identified before starting with remedial work.  

Problems usually arise when ventilation is inadequate and when exhaust systems are not located near potential sources of airborne pollutants. Office layout should not impede air flow and air filtration units should be installed at individual workstations. Plants are also helpful in absorbing carbon dioxide and thereby preventing its buildup. 

Judy Bates, director of research for Racine Industries Inc., has listed several solutions for improving the quality of indoor air which she summarizes as follow:

  • "Fix roof and pipe leaks promptly. Water sources promote growth of molds, bacteria and other biologicals."

  • "Maintain HVAC equipment carefully... and change filters regularly and install HEPA and HEPA-like filters to catch respirable particulate."

  • "Remove dust build-up inside HVAC ductwork.

  • Insulate to prevent condensation."

  • "Increase ventilation/fresh air into building. Filter the air to trap dust and other air-borne particulate."

  • "Reduce humidity and keep indoor surfaces dry. Run air-conditioning continually in humid climates."

  • "It's preferable to use a high-retention vacuum cleaner that retains virtually 100 percent of all particles larger than 0.1 micron, because respirable dust may be re-distributed if a dirty bag is used."

  • "Use of a low moisture, dry extraction system is preferable. However when cleaning carpet with high moisture systems, dry the clean areas quickly with fans and de-humidifiers. Keep air conditioning and ventilation systems running during the drying period."

  • "Control dust by switching to treated dusting cloths."

  • "Switch to lower VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) paints, adhesives and cleaning products."

1) Case, Christine L. “Sick Building Syndrome and Case History.” Skyline College. ""
2) Gots, MD,Ph.D Ronald “Sick Building Syndrome, A Diagnosis in Search of a Disease.” International Center for Toxicology and Medicine, 1999; 6001 Montrose Road, Suite 400, Rockville, Maryland 20852-4853; (301) 230-2999
3) Hensell, Lesley. “Sick Building Syndrome; The Law of Unintended Consequences Strikes,”and “Diagnosing and Preventing Sick Building Syndrome, Part 1& 2.” Realty Times. 1999; "http;//"

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