What is building sickness?
Building sickness, also known as sick building syndrome, is when contaminants present in a building cause sickness in the people living or working in that building. Typically those people will feel particularly ill when in the building, and some of their sickness symptoms may disappear once they have left the building.
How prevalent is building sickness?
Building sickness is much more common than most people or doctors think. A study by the World Health Organisation in 1984 estimated that as many as 30% of buildings worldwide may be subject to excessive complaints due to the poor indoor air quality (source: http://www.epa.gov). Another study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggested that 25% of new buildings could be classed as ‘sick buildings’. Suffice to say that sick building syndrome affects people in a significant number of buildings – both old and new – throughout the developed world.
What causes sick building syndrome?
Building sickness or sick building syndrome is caused by materials used in the construction of the building releasing contaminants into the air. This lowers the air quality and causes sickness in people who are breathing it. There are a wide variety of different contaminants known to be linked to sick building syndrome including:
- Carbon monoxide
- Nitrogen dioxide
- Man-made fibres
- Volatile organic compounds
- Radon gas
What are the symptoms?
Because of the variety of contaminants that cause problems sick building syndrome can present with a variety of symptoms. Typically people will be fatigued and get headaches quickly upon entering the building. They may also suffer from dizziness, general aches and pains, nausea and skin and/or eye irritation. These symptoms will normally improve significantly after a time being outside of the sick building.
Are there long-term effects?
While some of the contaminants linked with sick building syndrome will just make you feel ill when near them, others can have a profoundly negative effect on your long term health. Two of these are of particular cause for concern: Asbestos and radon gas.
Asbestos is a natural material that was extensively mined in Canada and used in building materials up to 1990. Asbestos fibres enter into the lungs when disturbed where they can cause lung cancer, Asbestosis and Mesothelioma, all of which are potentially fatal.
Radon gas is naturally occurring and can build up in buildings, it causes lung cancer and is linked to 16% of deaths due to lung cancer in Canada, second only to smoking (source: www.hc-sc.gc.ca).
Do any other factors contribute to building sickness?
There are several other factors that can contribute to making a building ‘sick’. These include biological contaminants such as mold, viruses, bacteria and pollen that can grow in stagnant water in the building. Poor ventilation, noise pollution and incorrect lighting levels can also contribute to building sickness.
Should I expect everyone in the building to be ill?
No. Different people react to different contaminants different. Some may have a more robust immune system while others may show a strong reaction, and some people may exhibit different symptoms while others may have none at all.
What should I do if I suspect sick building syndrome?
If one or more people start developing some of these symptoms and they do not have another cause (such as flu) you should suspect building sickness, especially if the symptoms appear linked to the building. If this is the case, you will first want to do a visual inspection to check obvious causes such as mold or faulty air conditioning. If upon inspection you cannot find the cause the best solution is to bring in an indoor air quality expert to assess your building. They can bring equipment to check for certain contaminants human senses cannot detect and will be able to assess your risk and advise on an appropriate course of action if necessary.