Sick Building Syndrome Explained

The days when people worked in mills thick with dust or factories black with smoke might be long gone, but many workplaces now expose occupants of the building to less obvious and slightly more sinister sources of pollution.

Although some toxic gases such as radon occur naturally, the quality of the air we breathe inside is compromised by the everyday materials we use within them. Carpets, furniture, printers, cleaning materials, photocopiers and poor ventilation all contribute to a toxic soup of chemicals in the air we breathe inside. And as most of us spend around 90 per cent of our lives inside, then exposure is hard to avoid.

Sick building syndrome has no specific known cause and no specific identifiable symptoms, and as such is regarded as a controversial diagnosis. However, there is no doubt that many people suffer ill health as a result of working in certain buildings. So what do we know about sick building syndrome, and can it be dealt with?

Sick Building Syndrome Explained

What is Sick Building Syndrome? 

Although it is hard to quantify, some individuals find that they can suffer from symptoms ranging from fatigue, headaches, eye irritations, breathing problems, dizziness and poor concentration at work. These could be put down to stress, however, studies show that indoor air quality in most buildings is very poor, and can be around 100 times more toxic than the air we breathe outside.

Risk factors include poor ventilation, the build up of man-made chemical pollutants such as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) found in paint, furnishings and carpets, ozone emitted by equipment such as photocopiers, and the presence of carbon dioxide and naturally occurring radon gas.

Identifying the Problem 

Due to the non specific and varying symptoms of sick building syndrome, it is hard to prevent symptoms when the exact causes are unknown. However, monitoring indoor air quality to assess the quality of the air can help reduce any risks to health and ensure the environment is safe.

Environmental and air pollution monitoring analysts can measure carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone and nitrogen dioxide levels, emissions from chemical, cleaning, industrial and manufacturing processes, and the presence of VOCs and formaldehyde.

Improving Indoor Air Quality

Indoor air quality can be improved by implementing simple measures to reduce the presence of harmful pollutants. These include:

Reduce the risks by avoiding the procurement of chemically treated or non-natural furniture, carpets, decorating paints and cleaning materials.

Ensure there is adequate ventilation. Opening windows is the best way to avoid or eliminate Sick Building Syndrome, as the inadequate circulation of air contributes to levels of toxicity.

Invest in plants. Plants can do much to improve the air quality in an office by absorbing carbon dioxide, and effectively filtering pollutants in the air. For the best results, use two plants for every one hundred square metres of space.

Regularly service heating and cooling systems to reduce the risk of harmful emissions

Maintain normal levels of humidity to reduce moulds and allergens.  Humidity levels should be around 30 – 50 per cent.

Bill Turner is a free-lance writer and landscaping artist. He enjoys walking his 2 Yorkies and spending time with family.