About Sick Building Syndrome

More than half of all Americans spend their working time in offices or office-like setting that—at least on the surface—look like healthy environments. Ironically, up to 60 percent of office workers report at least one health problem attributable to their workplace.

The most common problems blamed on the office environment include headaches, eye, nose or throat irritation, cough, dizziness, difficulty concentrating and fatigue. When such complaints affect a significant number of workers in a particular site, the problem is often referred to as "sick building syndrome" or "building-related illness".

In a small number of cases, clearly identifiable causes can be identified: biological contaminants (like mold) in the air that trigger allergic reactions; elevated carbon monoxide levels that cause headaches and nausea; and chemical fumes that cause eye, nose and throat irritation.

Most of the time, however, no specific cause for the symptoms can be found in the building. Some experts speculate that, in many of these cases, poor indoor air quality may play a role.

A number of factors can contribute to poor indoor air quality in an office setting, inadequate ventilation being among the most important. Poor ventilation clearly compromises the health of a building's occupants. For instance, the risk of airborne infectious diseases like the flu rises as outdoor air supply rates fall.

The occupants of buildings and their work activities can also impact indoor air quality. Environmental tobacco smoke contains a variety of toxic air contaminants and cleaning agents emit volatile organic compounds like toluene and benzene. Even furnishings inside the building and building materials themselves can create air quality problems. Carpeting and manufactured wood products emit formaldehyde, and office equipment like computers and photocopy machines give off a variety of pollutants including ozone.

Analyzing air samples to determine air quality seems like a logical way to evaluate "sick building" complaints, but it seldom provides useful information. Even in buildings where complaint levels are high, airborne contaminant levels rarely exceed existing standards and guidelines. (This does not necessarily rule out environmental causes for the complaints, since some very sensitive people may react to air pollutants at lower levels than those generally considered to be safe.)

If indoor air quality is a concern, several steps can be taken to reduce the likelihood of sick-building complaints. The first step is to eliminate, or at least minimize, exposure to all sources of known airborne irritants. Exposure to second-hand smoke can be eliminated by banning smoking from the workplace; exposure to volatile organic compounds can be decreased by cleaning the office space after most people have left work for the day.

Ventilation rates must also be maintained at appropriate levels for a building's size and occupancy. Changes in ventilation can dramatically influence levels of indoor pollutants, particularly when ventilation rates are low. Several studies show that improving ventilation not only enhances workers' comfort level, it makes them more productive as well.

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