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What is Sick Building Syndrome?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 31 August 2016
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Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) was first identified and recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) in the early 1980s. It is a condition, most often occurring in commercial buildings, where numerous workers can be affected by a variety of symptoms, cutting down on worker productivity and greatly increasing absenteeism. The causes of Sick Building Syndrome are difficult to identify, because the condition is normally caused by a number of existing factors in the building. People may be affected by chemical output of paints, carpets, natural molds and pollutants like cockroach excrement, tobacco smoke, specific types of flickering lighting, low humidity, poor maintenance of the building, and air and heating settings that do not include enough exchange with outdoor air.

You’re likely to see Sick Building Syndrome occur most often in large structures built after the 1960s. As builders sought to make buildings more airtight, they may have inadvertently created the problem of SBS because there is little air exchange between indoor and outdoor air. This can exacerbate sensitivities people might have to exposure to multiple chemicals or biological contaminants.

Symptoms of Sick Building Syndrome are quite varied and usually must be experienced by a large number of people working in the building for the condition to be identified. Symptoms include:

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  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome
  • Cold or Flu Symptoms
  • Sore Throat
  • Aches and Pains
  • Bronchitis
  • Sinus Infections
  • Fatigue

Since there are so many potential causes for Sick Building Syndrome, “curing the building” to cure the people affected is done on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes air filtration can make a difference. At other times, improving lighting, creating air exchange, removing known contaminants, and creating more ergonomically designed work stations all help.

It can often take time to find out what is working to reduce Sick Building Syndrome. In large buildings, several companies may have to work together to evaluate employee reports of SBS, to see if attendance figures are improving, and to figure out exactly what is working to reduce the problem. In many cases, reducing SBS is challenging, with possibly several solutions needed to reduce the problem.

The statistics on SBS from the WHO are staggering. It is estimated that up to half of new buildings, or newly refurbished buildings may cause Sick Building Syndrome. In worst cases, almost all employees in the building can be affected, up to 85%. From time to time residential buildings also cause SBS, but this is less common.

Illness resulting from apartment buildings tends to be the result of biological contaminants like molds or fungi, and poor overall maintenance of the building. Some think that SBS is less common in residential buildings since single apartments are likely to show greater variance in decoration. Further, many apartments give you the ability to open a window if the air seems stale, even in apartments of many floors. This may not be true in an office environment, and decorations are more uniform. Everyone on the same floor of a building may have the same carpet, and similar desks, chairs and lighting. This uniformity may be the reason why SBS more often occurs in commercial buildings.

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