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Sick at work? Could be Building Related Illness or Sick Building Syndrome

Having worked in a building in which myself and many others have not felt well, I can sympathize with those who experience Sick Building Syndrome. This is a condition where medical symptoms are worse in a particular building or room and subside when not in that location. This may show up as headaches, fatigue or an irritation to the eyes, nose or throat. There are numerous potential sources to this problem and an indoor air quality expert should be consulted to identify whether this is an indoor air quality issue or possibly something else.

In some cases, issues that were thought to be building related have turned out to be stress related to the workplace. Physical or psychological stressors can show up as health issues with satisfactory indoor air quality. An example of this is working many more hours to complete a project with a tight deadline. As stress and pressure builds up in this scenario, a worker is likely to be getting less sleep than normal and possibly change their diet to eat less nutritional food. All of these factors combined can result in a compromised immune system and be perceived as building related.

If this is an indoor air quality issue it could be due to insufficient ventilation of the HVAC system, lack of HEPA filtration, presence of mold, bacteria, viruses, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, etc. In short, there is a significant list of potential causes to an indoor air quality problem.

Those most susceptible to sick building conditions are people with compromised immune systems or age related such as the elderly and children. All buildings have some degree of contamination however a low level may be sufficient to make a person ill, especially if they have a low immune system.

Given the vast possible sources to an indoor air quality problem, we will highlight the three primary actions to control an indoor air quality problem. The first is source control. If the source of the problem can be identified and safely removed, get rid of it or exhaust the pollutants. If the source is a loved pet that may not be an option however if the problem is due to something like a cooking odor the first step is to exhaust the polluted air to the outside.

The second action is dilution of the indoor air with "fresh" outdoor air. The HVAC systems for commercial buildings draw air from the outside and "condition" it to adjust the temperature, lower if high humidity levels and filter the large particles. Improving the ventilation to pull in more of the "fresh" air and exhaust more of the "dirty" indoor air to the outside is the essence of this step. Unfortunately for nearly all homes, the HVAC system does not pull in air from the outside so the only way to get fresh air is to open doors or windows. The problem with this approach is that the air is not conditioned so the humidity level in the house could rise, allergen causing particles could be brought into the house or the chemicals/gases could be drawn in if the outdoor air is polluted.

The third step to controlling indoor air quality is the removal of particles from the air through air cleaning. We will discuss this topic in more detail in the future article, however the general consensus of the leading indoor air quality experts is to recommend HEPA filtration as the means for air cleaning. HEPA filtration does not cause harm to the occupants as some of the other technologies can and HEPA filters are the most effective in removing the smaller particles that cause allergens or travel to your lungs and cause respiratory issues.