Sick Building Syndrome – Is it in your workplace?

The quality of indoor air is a major concern in most workplaces. Poor air quality can affect the health, wellness, performance, and productivity of your employees. If you don’t pay attention to the indoor air quality at your offices, your employees could be affected by a phenomenon known as Sick Building Syndrome (SBS).


What’s Sick Building Syndrome?

Well, the term SBS is universally used to describe cases where multiple occupants of a building experience serious health issues or considerable discomfort, which seem to be related to the time they spent in that particular building. In cases of SBS, a specific illness or causal agent can’t be identified (If specific illnesses can be identified, the term Building Related Illness (BRI) is used instead). SBS can either be concentrated on particular sections of the building, or it can be spread throughout the building.


What are the signs of SBS?

If multiple occupants of a building complain about symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, nausea, irritation to the eyes, throat, or nose, general fatigue, rashes and skin itches, difficulty concentrating, dry cough, or heightened sensitivity to odours, you could be dealing with SBS. If the cause of the symptoms is unknown, and if most of the affected people report feeling relieved when they leave the building, you can be certain that you are indeed dealing with SBS. Some symptoms may be caused by other conditions (such as stress, allergies, or infections contracted outside the building), but they may be exacerbated by poor indoor air quality.


What causes SBS?

SBS may be caused by poor ventilation in the building or the presence of chemical and biological contaminants in the air. Poor ventilation may be the problem if a building’s HVAC system isn’t properly installed or well distributed, or if it’s not functioning optimally. The ventilation standards for different cities and regions are often revised (as the global pollution problem increases) so building with old HVAC systems may need an update to ensure adequate ventilation.

Chemical contaminants that cause SBS can either originate from indoor or outdoor sources. Indoor chemical contaminants are mostly Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). VOCs may originate from furniture made of processed wood, cleaning agents, adhesives, tobacco smoke, adhesives, upholstery, carpets etc. In low concentrations, VOCs cause discomfort, but in higher concentration (or after prolonged exposure), they could pose serious health risks to the occupants of a building. Chemical contaminants from outdoor sources usually enter into buildings through the air conditioning system and cause indoor air pollution. They include gases and particles from vehicles and factories near the building.

Biological contaminants that cause SBS include pollen, mould, viruses, and bacteria. These contaminants can be introduced into the building through air ducts, or foot traffic. They can breed in dump areas in carpets, insulation, ceilings etc. Biological contaminants are likely to flourish in offices with poor lighting, and high humidity.


How are buildings investigated for air quality contaminants?

To stop SBS, you need to bring in Environmental Consultants who can assess your building’s indoor air quality  as soon as the occupants start reporting any of the symptoms we’ve mentioned. The environmental consultants usually assess the affected occupants, HVAC system, and the entire building in order to identify possible sources of contaminants and the pathways of the pollutants.

When consulted, indoor air quality experts will start by looking at the history of the building to see if there have been similar issues in the past. They’ll then come in for an initial walkthrough of the building (which involves carrying out a visual inspection and interviewing affected occupants). After the initial walkthrough, experienced consultants will be able to come up with a hypothesis that explains the problem.

They’ll then carry out a number of air quality tests which may prove or disprove their hypothesis. After they are certain about the types of contaminants and the pathways of the pollutants, the environmental consultants will be able to recommend effective solutions which can be adapted to eliminate the contaminants, improve air quality, and put an end to the SBS.


What are the best solutions for SBS?

Removing the source of the pollutant

This may be done by carrying out routine maintenance of the HVAC system, getting rid of harmful cleaning agents, storing chemicals safely, or replacing water-damaged carpets and ceiling tiles. This solution works best in cases where the pollutant sources can be identified, and where the control measures are feasible.


Increasing the rate of ventilation

At the very least, you should ensure that your building’s HVAC system meets the current ventilation standards in your city’s building code. Commonly used rooms in office buildings or rooms that are prone to chemical air pollution (e.g. copy rooms and restrooms) should have local exhaust ventilation.


Air purification

In some cases, it may be necessary to clean and purify the air that enters your building. This means adding more filters and particle control devices to your HVAC system. Depending on the type of pollutants you are dealing with, you may need high-performance mechanical filters (to remove small particles) or even adsorbent beds (to remove harmful gases).


Finally, Sick Building Syndrome can be reduced if the occupants of a building are educated on the dangers of indoor air pollution. So, ensure that all employees and cleaners in the office are informed about the importance of good indoor air quality and that they are actively involved in maintaining it.

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