Sick Building Syndrome: Is Your Office Making You Ill?

Is your workplace making you sick? Most people have experienced a reluctance to go back to work after a long weekend. However, for some people, that reluctance stems from far more than simply wanting to take another day off of work. If you and your office mates are experiencing unexplained symptoms such as dizziness, headaches and nausea that only occur when you spend time in the workplace, you might be suffering from sick building syndrome (SBS).

What is sick building syndrome?

Sick building syndrome is a term that was coined in the 1970s to describe unexplained symptoms related to time spent in a specific building. It is used when many of the building’s occupants experience similar symptoms during their time in the building, but the cause of those symptoms—whether biological, chemical or physical—cannot be found. For most people experiencing SBS, the structure causing the symptoms is typically an office building. This syndrome can affect people in a particular part of the building or it can be present throughout the entire structure.

Most of the time, indoor air quality problems may only cause mild discomfort. However, indoor air pollution can sometimes cause more severe symptoms or exacerbate existing health conditions. The symptoms of sick building syndrome vary from case to case and haven’t been found to fit any specific pattern.

How can you tell if you and others in your building are suffering from SBS? Common symptoms include acute discomfort caused by headaches, sensitivity to odors, irritation in your eyes, nose or throat, dry cough, skin irritation, dizziness, nausea, trouble concentrating and fatigue. People experiencing SBS experience these symptoms without any apparent cause and usually experience relief soon after leaving the building in question.

Because there is no clear cause for SBS, there is also no single way to test for or treat the syndrome.

How is sick building syndrome different than building-related illness?

A 1984 report by the World Health Organization Committee stated that up to 30 percent of new or remodeled buildings throughout the world may contribute to various building-related illnesses. Building-related illness (BRI) is a term used to describe medical symptoms that can be attributed to a specific illness caused by airborne building contaminants. Symptoms of BRI can be similar to those of SBS. However, BRI symptoms may be more severe and can cause serious lung and respiratory conditions.

The controversy surrounding SBS

There are parts of the medical community that do not believe that sick building syndrome is a real medical condition. Some experts think that SBS symptoms can be attributed to illnesses contracted while outside of the building, allergies, job-related stress and dissatisfaction or other psychological factors.

Some medical organizations, such as the American Medical Association (AMA), suggest that SBS cannot be considered a true medical syndrome without specifically defined symptoms, causes, diagnostic tests and treatments.

Those who argue that SBS is, in fact, a true medical syndrome posit that its causes are multiple and varied. They suggest that people with different medical conditions react to those causes—such as mold, smoke and off-gassing—in different ways. It has also been suggested that people suffering from SBS have a high sensitivity to low concentrations of these pollutants. This may cause them to have an exaggerated immune response to the presence of these substances in a certain building. This is called multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS).

What are the symptoms of SBS?

Reported symptoms of sick building syndrome vary case-by-case and can include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Gas and bloating
  • Dizziness
  • Hoarseness and cough
  • Sneezing, congestion or nosebleeds
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle pain, stiffness or aches
  • Irritation to the skin, eyes, nose, throat
  • Chest pains and shortness of breath
  • Cardiac arrhythmias
  • Problems with concentration, mood swings and memory

SBS symptoms can also cause a decrease in job productivity and necessitate a relocation. Because these symptoms can often be attributed to other diagnosable medical conditions, it can be difficult to ascertain whether SBS is their true cause. Building inspections and medical tests can be used to try to find a diagnosis but, because of the nature of the syndrome, the true cause of the symptoms may not be found.

SBS and building mold

While the exact causes of sick building syndrome are unknown, they are often attributed to indoor air pollutants, according to the EPA. These pollutants can include volatile organic compounds (VOCs), harmful gasses such as carbon monoxide (CO) and pesticides. Recent research has found that some instances of SBS may also be caused by mycotoxins from indoor air fungi.

Different species of mold, including Stachybotrys, Aspergillus, Penicillium and Cladosporium can release mycotoxin spores into the air. These spores have sometimes been found in the air of buildings where people are experiencing SBS. Exposure to mycotoxins can negatively affect many bodily systems including the nervous, respiratory, immune, reproductive and digestive systems.

Which building characteristics may cause SBS?

While not everybody agrees that sick building syndrome is a real disease, it has been proven that poor indoor air quality can contribute to a variety of health conditions. Some building characteristics that may contribute to SBS symptoms are:

  • Poor ventilation — This is thought to be one of the major contributors to SBS. Inadequate air ventilation within a building can cause health and comfort issues for the building’s occupants. Poor ventilation may be caused by ineffective heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.
  • Chemical contaminants — Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can be found in a variety of building materials and substances including adhesives, upholstery, pesticides and cleaning agents. When these VOCs enter the air, building occupants can inhale them and experience either temporary or chronic adverse health effects.
  • Biological contaminants — These include mold, bacteria, and viruses. These substances can be found in stagnant water found in air ducts and humidifiers. Biological contaminants can also be produced by some insects and bird droppings. Symptoms associated with exposure to biological contaminants include muscle aches, cough and chest tightness, fever, chills and allergic reactions.
  • Inadequate temperature, humidity or lighting — These complaints may supplement other sources of SBS symptoms.

Building tests and inspections may reveal these contributors to SBS, but it is also likely that the specific causes of SBS symptoms may remain unknown.

Can you prevent or treat SBS?

Preventing a syndrome without a clear cause can be tricky. However, the EPA has outlined prevention methods to address diagnosable building-related diseases known to be related to certain airflow systems and construction materials. While there is no way to test if a structure is causing SBS, buildings can be tested for known illness-causing pollutants, such as formaldehyde, radon gas, asbestos, black mold, and lead.

To combat the presence of these pollutants, building practices may be changed. This includes installing air filters, clearing the air circulation system of fungal and bacterial contamination and keeping building air intakes away from sources of irritants. Using the right building materials and construction methods can also serve to cut down instances of SBS. Proper building maintenance may also help prevent the syndrome.

Without an identifiable source causing the symptoms, treatment of SBS can be difficult. One answer may be working with your doctor to treat your individual symptoms. Additionally, some doctors report success after prescribing antidepressants or medications to treat anxiety and sleep disorders. Your doctor may refer you to a specialist such as an allergist or immunologist.

If you suspect that your workplace is making you ill, you can find additional resources with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

How can you improve the air quality of your office building?

Whether you suspect that your office building is causing SBS or not, you can always benefit from increased indoor air quality. Improving the ventilation of your office and eliminating sources of air pollutants are the two top ways to improve your indoor air quality. Some ways to do this are:

  • Perform routine maintenance of HVAC systems, such as cleaning and replacing filters
  • Use ventilation to redirect contaminant emissions from sources such as paints, adhesives and pesticides to the outdoors
  • Only use substances that emit air pollutants when the building is mostly empty of people
  • Replacing any ceiling tile and carpet that has water damage
  • Restrict cigarette smoking near building entrances and air intakes

Communication between building occupants, owners and maintenance crews is necessary to regulate indoor air quality practices. The best way to maintain and improve air quality in your office building is to quickly address issues with pollutants as soon as they are detected.

Can air filters improve your office’s air quality?

Installing an air filter in your office might help reduce the airborne pollutants that cause symptoms of sick building syndrome. However, not all air filtration systems are created equally. For the best improvements to the air quality of your office building, look for an air filter that will be able to capture and destroy the small, inhalable particles and bacteria that could contribute to the effects of sick building syndrome.