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What is Sick Building Syndrome?

Jun 21, 2017


Sick Building Syndrome

Buildings need an ample supply of fresh air if people are to live healthily inside. Unfortunately, the air inside our buildings is regularly of a poorer quality than that outside. Just consider the pollutants and toxins we bring in with us, including cleaning products, bleaches, detergents, perfumes, air fresheners, candles, and incense. We happily store these items in the home, in spite of the fact that they are harmful to the environment and cannot readily be disposed of. The same can be said of other household items such as batteries, printing inks, and deodorant sprays. Progress has been made in terms of our knowledge of the threat posed to food by harmful pesticides, but we still have some way to go before we fully appreciate the damage caused to our health by the multitude of chemicals that we allow and even bring into our buildings.

There are also some toxic materials in the fabric of our buildings, such as brickwork containing arsenic, windows and doors that contain vinyl chlorides, and fire-retardant chemicals and pesticides that are added to many popular insulation products. That’s all before we start on building contents, everything from synthetic textiles, carpets, beds, and pillows to painted surfaces that can contain lead and carcinogenic elements.

There is an apparent lack of concern about this, and there is insufficient research on air quality in buildings. Building codes and regulations traditionally controlled only air quantity, not air quality, although this is now changing. Ironically, whereas building materials are not tested in our homes, rigorous analysis is always conducted for signs of toxic remnants in the soil and groundwater around the factories where these products are made.

According to United Retek, the leading provider of soil remediation services for industry, commerce, and government, nearly 100% of the company’s workload comes from treating contaminated soils left behind by factories that manufactured housing materials such as bricks, treated timbers, PVC windows and doors, solvents, paints, adhesives, and dyes, or all the component parts of the buildings we live and work in. This does not bode well for the quality of the internal environment.

When occupants experience poor health that is in some way associated with time spent in certain buildings, the buildings in question are described has having sick building syndrome (SBS). The symptoms usually include headaches, dizziness, nausea, dry cough, asthma attacks, itchy skin, fatigue, flu-like symptoms, and many different combinations of these effects. Some people are more at risk and display acute symptoms, whereas others in the same building suffer no ill-effects. The causes of SBS are not fully understood, and very little research has been carried out on the problem to date. Suspects include toxins off-gassing from within the fabric of the building; biological sources such as pollen, dust mites, bacteria, molds, and Legionnaires’ spores; or electromagnetic radiation from all the appliances and gadgets wired throughout the building (see also Step 6 on smart meters). External emissions from buildings are highly regulated, controlled, and tested by national environmental agencies, but not so internal emissions.

Airtightness can save energy and money, but unless a well-designed and well-managed process for introducing fresh air and removing harmful contaminants is introduced, buildings will increasingly become a health hazard. Well-managed airflow, not draughts, is the best way of ensuring that we live and breathe fresh air within our buildings. Thankfully, the technology for introducing controlled airflow through modern, nearly silent fans has improved greatly. The cost of heat exchangers, which exchange and balance the temperature of incoming air with that of the outgoing air so that the room temperature remains the same, has become less expensive.

As the opening quote of this step reminds us, it’s worth remembering that our forests and plant life are like the lungs of the earth. So a simple way of improving a building’s air quality, as well as the ambience of our surroundings, is to add some plants.