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What Sick Building Syndrome Is and How to Avoid It

You understand the dangers of airborne illness and air pollution outdoors, but did you ever consider the buildings you spend time in could be making you sick?

What is Sick Building Syndrome?

There’s been a lot of talk of Ebola, SARS, and swine flu, but a much stealthier and pervasive illness called Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) has spread rapidly, largely under the radar. SBS has a constellation of symptoms like fatigue, burning eyes, headaches, asthma-like wheezing, and gastrointestinal complaints. The course of the illness is all over the place, from mild and temporary to extreme and chronic.

hospital_sick_building_syndrome_hall_scrubs_doctor_picThe World Health Organization has estimated that up to one third of us are being exposed to this malady almost every day. To add to the frustration of this condition is the fact that it eludes specific diagnosis and treatment by the medical profession. Treatment costs billions of dollars annually, and preventative measures billions more.

The first big famous case of SBS was in 1976 when almost 200 American Legion convention attendees mysteriously fell ill with extremely serious flu-like symptoms. After extensive medical investigation, it was finally determined that the culprit was a bacteria growing in the ventilation system of the hotel. In fact, they named the syndrome Legionnaire’s Disease after this incident.

Unhealthy Buildings

Since that time they’ve found that people who work in buildings as diverse as libraries, churches, office buildings, hospitals, and even their own homes experiencing a wide array of signs, symptoms, and complaints. High rise buildings seem to be particularly susceptible to SBS. It has now been found that there are several types of causes for the reaction to some buildings.

Obviously, contaminated or unhealthy building materials like asbestos insulation, lead paint, lead water piping, and VOCs have been identified as dangerous and are aggressively being eliminated from existing structures as well as being prohibited from future construction by code.

office_sick_building_syndrome_picOne of the most common causes of SBS is the air we breathe in large commercial buildings. Faulty ventilation systems, carbon monoxide, infestation of bacteria, viruses, mold spores, second hand smoke, dust, paint fumes, industrial chemicals, glues, and even pollens from certain indoor plants. You see air pollution isn’t just an outdoor problem anymore; in fact, the air in some buildings could rightly be termed a floating chemical cocktail. Incidence is particularly high in buildings that are sealed and those built over underground parking facilities.

SBS in the Office

Another offender in SBS is noise pollution. Working in an environment with constant machine noise, loud music, phone conversation, traffic noise; you may think you get use to it, and may not even be aware of it anymore, but it does exact a toll. Headaches, irritability, and fatigue are often the price. Many of us don’t even know what quiet sounds like anymore.

The modern work space for many of us is a small claustrophobic cubicle, in front of one or two computer screens, with harsh artificial overhead lighting, maybe even a headset constantly putting pressure on our heads. Some lighting is irritatingly bright, some under-illuminating, both of which can cause eye strain. A number of authorities say it may even upset the normal circadian rhythm, thus affecting sleep patterns. Some forms of artificial light emit low levels of radiation that may sap your energy. One expert has even called this the “ill lighting syndrome.”

Those who travel extensively need to know that a commercial airliner has all of the environmental pollutants of SBS crammed into a much smaller space, in addition to crossing time zones. Cruise ships may be even more of a floating petri dish. Ever heard of travel fatigue or jet lag?

Minimize the Effects of an Unhealthy Building

  • cubicles_sick_building_syndrome_man_picThere are now high capacity ventilation systems that exchange stale air for fresh air much more efficiently, and air purifiers with ionic, ozone, and HEPA filters that remove particulates.
  • New lighting systems are much closer to the natural spectrum.
  • Building materials are now more resistant to molds, and there are more antibacterial surfaces within the building.
  • Wash your hands regularly.
  • Get up and out several times a day.

Help stamp out SBS!

Learn more about the dangers of noise pollution!

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