Sick Building Syndrome

Not a clinically diagnosable disease. Building occupants experience acute health and discomfort effects which is linked to time spent in the building, but no specific origin of illness is identified

What is this Sick Building Syndrome?

Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) term is used to describe symptoms experienced by a good number of those living or working in a particular building (or part thereof). This symptom seems to be linked directly to the time spent in the building:

  • Acute health issues for otherwise healthy building occupants not related to specific illness.
  • Discomfort of occupants linked with the time spent inside the building.
  • No other cause of illness could be identified.
  • Most symptoms relieved soon after leaving the building & recur upon re-entry.
Symptoms of SBS usually are:
  • Headache;
  • Eye, nose or throat irritations;
  • Fatigue & difficulty in concentration;
  • Dry cough;
  • Dizziness and nausea;
  • Allergies;
  • Asthma.

But there are no known exact causes of these symptoms. They tend to increase, the more time, people spend inside and appear to go away once they exit the building.

Causes of SBS

1. Poor Ventilation

Building designers strive to make buildings more airtight, with less outdoor air ventilation, in order to improve energy efficiency. This reduced ventilation is found to be inadequate to maintain the health and comfort of building occupants.

2. Outdoor Pollution

Pollutants from outdoor sources can all contribute to SBS (e.g., adhesives, carpeting, pesticides, VOCs, vehicle exhausts and more). Contaminants from outside like pollutants from motor vehicle exhaust, plumbing vents and building exhausts (bathrooms and kitchens) can enter the building through poorly located air intake vents, windows and other openings.

3. Biological contaminants

These include pollen, bacteria, viruses, fungus, molds, etc. These contaminants can breed in stagnant water that has accumulated in humidifiers, drainpipes and ducts or where water has collected on ceiling tiles, insulation, carpets and upholstery – exposure to all of which can cause symptoms of Sick Building Syndrome.

4. Chemical contaminants

Chemical Contaminants which contribute to SBS include sources of indoor air pollution which are existing inside the building. For example, adhesives, carpeting, upholstery, manufactured wood products, copy machines, pesticides, and cleaning agents may emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), other toxic compounds, and Respirable particulate matter (PM).

5. Inadequate humidity levels

High levels of moisture in the air form an invisible breeding ground for all kinds of bacteria and fungus that cause asthma, allergies and several other respiratory conditions. On the other hand, low humidity levels cause dry skin, itchy eyes and throat, bloody nose and sinuses. Long exposure creates more alarming problems, making you completely vulnerable to flu, viruses and other infections.

6. Fluctuations in temperature

Fluctuations in temperature are a common cause of workplace stress. Individuals vary by so many factors like body fat, muscle mass, gender, age, hormones, etc. that it is impossible to have a steady temperature that everyone is comfortable with. The result is a building full of stressed out and unproductive personnel or students.

7. Poor lighting

Whether it is a patient ward, a library, a classroom or an office, a well-lit room immediately uplifts the moods and encourages productivity of the people in it. And keeps its inhabitants energetic. On the contrary, too much light, glare, flickering, or dim rooms can have the exact opposite effect. Along with headaches and eye strain.

8. Malfunctioning of Heating and Cooling systems

Malfunctioning heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems (HVAC systems) also increase the indoor air pollution. An ideal HVAC system vents out stale air and vents in fresh air, all without causing an area to lose heat or cooling. A reason why you are jetlagged and often catch flu and viruses after long flights, is that the air constantly circulates in the aircraft, meaning you breathe in the same air and high amounts of CO2 everyone has been breathing out.

Solutions to SBS

Increase ventilation

A big part of preventing SBS relies on taking proactive measures to improve indoor environments, such as preventing exposure from pollution in the first place and improving ventilation.

Remove Source of pollutants

We need to understand the sources of pollution and work to remove or reduce them.

Air cleaning

Air cleaning can be performed by ensuring uncongested interiors with open office designs, frosted glass and skylights that give access to natural light, terrace gardens, community spaces and indoor plants that absorb toxic air pollutants from the air. Air purifiers are also effective in removing some if not all of the pollutants.

Education and Communication

Education about air quality and our indoor spaces also plays a major role. We, at Fresh Air try to educate people about the indoor air quality problems and their solutions.

Building Investigation Procedures

The goal of a building investigation is to identify and solve indoor air quality complaints in a way that prevents them from recurring and avoids the creation of other problems. We, at Fresh Air, audit the quality of indoor air and provide effective solutions for the same.

Whatever the causes of a particular case of Sick Building Syndrome, the phenomenon is real and comes with a huge knock-on economic cost. Whether it’s a conference room, office or a cafe, people want to spend long hours in a comfortable indoor atmosphere. In an office, good indoor air quality means higher productivity, more quality output and the company meets targets faster. In schools, students in classrooms with good indoor climate perform better than in bad indoor climates. In restaurants, people wanting to spend longer times naturally means more sales and more popularity of restaurant.

Reference links used:
1. – A breath of Fresh Air, La Ronna DeBraak
2. – House Plants for a Healthy Home, Jon Van Zile
3. – The Healing Power of Plants, Fran Bailey

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Know Your Home Air

Gas heating systems, leaking chimneys, fire places emits carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and other harmful pollutants. Plastics and common household cleaners, paints, paint thinner often placed under the kitchen sink, release Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), when used and stored. Overheating of non-stick cookware releases toxic fumes. Pesticides we use in and around the home also release various chemical and semi-volatile compounds.


Harmful effects
Carbon monoxide causes headache, dizziness and fatigue. These often cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, nausea, and can also damage the liver, kidney, and central nervous system. Fine particles are produced during all kinds of combustion which lead to acute and chronic effects to respiratory and cardiovascular systems.

Pet dander and hair, carpet, rugs, upholstery furniture are main source of dust mites, fungus, and bacteria. A dirty filter of air conditioners acts as a reservoir for dirt, dust and other airborne contaminants that are continuously circulated back into your breathing air. Secondhand smoke from cigarettes, other tobacco products and mosquito coil emits VOC’s and formaldehyde and various particulate matters. CO2 released from our lungs is exhaled in the air which pollutes the air if the place is too crowded or there is less ventilation.


Harmful effects
All these can trigger coughing, nosebleeds, shortness of breath, dry mouth, vomiting,
digestive tract problems, depression, allergy and asthma attacks, and other respiratory illness.

Shower, faucets and other water sources are main cause of humidity and mold. Bathroom cleaners and personal care products like toothpaste, soaps, facial tissues, detergent, fabric softeners, air fresheners, deodorizers, hair sprays, disinfectants, are full of VOC’s and chemicals which emits harmful pollutants.


Harmful effects
Mold can cause allergic reactions, asthma and other respiratory ailments. VOC’s and toxic chemicals released in the bathroom can causes eye, nose, and throat irritation, nausea and respiratory problems. All these products release harmful pollutants while they are used also when they are stored.

A bedroom contains many sources of indoor air pollution. Mattress, pillow and blankets, soft toys, are the reservoirs of dust mites, fungi and bacteria. Furniture, carpets, paints and beauty product like hairspray, nail polishes, perfumes, deodorants etc off gas VOC, formaldehyde and toxic gases into the air.


Harmful effects
These pollutants make the air unhealthy which leads to allergy, asthma attacks, dizziness, headache, fatigue and other respiratory ailments.

Second-hand smoke
Second hand Smoke is a mixture of the smoke given off by the burning of tobacco products, such as cigarettes, cigars or pipes and the smoke exhaled by smokers. Secondhand smoke is also called environmental tobacco smoke (ETS). Passive smoking can lead to coughing, excess phlegm, and chest discomfort. NCI (National Cancer Institute) also notes that spontaneous abortion (miscarriage), cervical cancer, sudden infant death syndrome, low birth weight, nasal sinus cancer, decreased lung function, exacerbation of cystic fibrosis, and negative cognitive and behavioral effects in children have been linked to ETS. Secondhand smoke exposure commonly occurs indoors, particularly in homes and cars. Secondhand smoke can move between rooms of a home and between apartment units.

Guest Bathroom

Central heating and cooling systems and humidification devices
The air filter in your HVAC system is the front line of defense against poor indoor air quality. A typical central heating and cooling system circulates over 1,000 cubic feet per minute of air through the filter. This means the entire air volume in your house passes through the filter multiple times every day. A dirty filter, however, can actually make indoor air quality worse by acting as a reservoir for dirt, dust and other airborne contaminants that are continuously circulated back into your breathing air. In addition to driving up your utility bill, a clogged air filter will allow all that dust and debris that should be filtered out to be re-circulated back into your home. This can cause chronic allergies and especially be dangerous for people with asthma or other respiratory conditions.

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