Sick Building Syndrome: Causes & Prevention

Sick Building Syndrome impacts the health, wellness, and productivity of many building occupants across the world. But why is diagnosing this sickness so difficult? In this piece, we explore Sick Building Syndrome in more detail and consider how new forms of environmental intelligence can help providers of commercial indoor treatment solutions ensure they meet health regulations and demands for safety indoors.

What is Sick Building Syndrome?

“Sick Building Syndrome” refers to situations in which individuals start to feel acute health effects linked to time spent in a building. Unlike ‘Building-Related Illness’ (BRI), where symptoms and diagnosable illnesses can be identified and tied to specific contaminants, it’s not possible to associate Sick Building Syndrome with specific illnesses or causes.

There are some particular Sick Building Syndrome characteristics that, if detected in building occupants, could indicate Sick Building Syndrome:

  1. A number of otherwise healthy building occupants complain of uncomfortable symptoms like fatigue, headaches, throat irritation, concentration problems, dry coughs, and more.
  2. Building occupants feel relief upon leaving the building with a relatively fast recovery.
  3. No other cause can be identified for the pervasive illness.

How Much Does Perception Have to Do with It?

As Sick Building Syndrome cannot often equate to a specific cause other than time spent in a specific building, or a specific part of the building, some regard the experienced symptoms as potentially psychologically rooted.

However, studies have shown a clear association between the perception of poor indoor air quality, symptoms experienced, and the actual indoor environmental context. For example, air-conditioned buildings generally show a higher prevalence of symptomatic individuals than naturally ventilated buildings:

Sick Building Symptom Index Graph
Image source: Research Gate

Sick Building Syndrome – Scientific Causes

The EPA cites the following common contributing factors to Sick Building Syndrome:

  1. Poor Ventilation: Inadequate ventilation, which can also occur if HVAC systems don’t effectively distribute air to all people in the building.
  2. Chemical Contaminants: Pollutants from both indoor & outdoor sources can all contribute to Sick Building Syndrome (e.g. adhesives, carpeting, pesticides, VOCs, vehicle exhausts, and more).
  3. Biological Contaminants: Biological contaminant examples include bacteria, mold, pollen, and viruses – exposure to all of which can cause symptoms of Sick Building Syndrome.

Real Examples of Sick Building Syndrome

Case Study: Small Commercial Office Building in Richmond, Virginia

After several occupants complained of symptoms associated with Sick Building Syndrome in an office near Richmond, VA, an inspection of the premises found that the building’s ventilation system provided hardly any outside air to the space. Lack of proper ventilation resulted in significant levels of respirable dust in the air and an increase in other internally produced contaminants from the occupants and work processes during the day.

The solution: Investigators recommended increasing the outdoor ventilation rate to 20 CFM per person, according to ASHRAE standards. The building owners commissioned a newly designed outside-air ventilation system to achieve the required improvements.

Case Study: Japanese Office Worker Suffers from Sick Building Syndrome

In this Sick Building Syndrome example, a 36-year-old female office worker developed nausea and headaches during her working hours in a refurbished office in Japan. She tried to get help from health providers for months before being referred to a hospital where it was found that chemical exposure from building materials such as formaldehyde was likely to have induced a range of symptoms.

The Economic Cost of Sick Building Syndrome

Whatever the specific causes of a particular case of Sick Building Syndrome, the phenomenon is real and comes with a huge knock-on economic cost – it also presents a real challenge for HR managers in terms of preventable employee absenteeism.

There is clear financial motivation for tackling a case of Sick Building Syndrome head-on: Harvard researchers found that improving indoor air quality conditions carried a direct positive impact for businesses. Doubling ventilation alone equated to productivity benefits valued at $6500 annually per employee.

“Ultimately, managers would be wise to routinely incorporate health impacts into all of their cost-benefit calculations,” wrote researcher Joseph Allen, Director of the Harvard Healthy Buildings Program.

Sick Building Syndrome Prevention & Solutions: The Importance of Education & Safe Indoor Spaces

A big part of preventing Sick Building Syndrome relies on taking proactive measures to improve the health of indoor environments, such as reducing exposure to outdoor and indoor air pollution and improving ventilation.

Experts suggest that doubling the outdoor air supply rate alone could reduce illness and the occurrence of sick building syndrome by roughly 10%.

Education about air quality and our indoor spaces also plays a key role: If building occupants and managers understand the causes and impacts of unhealthy environments, they can take action against it. 

Smart tech is also helping a lot here as a growing number of companies start to combine human feedback with accurate monitoring and automated control.

  • Indoor air leader Airthings created business-focused offerings to enable building managers and workers to view the health of their indoor environments in real-time through a network of connected sensors and integrated outdoor environmental data from BreezoMeter.
  • Tech leader Siemens revolutionized what HVAC OEMs can provide consumers, enabling them to create new digital offerings with premium IAQ optimization features for their hardware by leveraging real-time environmental data and insights.

4 Ways COVID-19 Affects Sick Building Management

The COVID-19 pandemic helped shine a spotlight on the importance of healthy indoor air spaces: 90% of office workers worldwide now want to be informed of the air quality in their buildings and 72% worry about the conditions of their indoor environments.

Rising demands for healthy air in the workspace have spurred business owners and facility managers to seek more effective ways to protect and maintain indoor environment health and prevent Sick Building Syndrome.

office building & sick building syndrome

1. Increased Recognition of the Indoor-Outdoor Air Pollution Continuum

A growing understanding of air pollution’s impact on health has led some scientists to focus on the indoor-outdoor air pollution continuum – which sees air pollution indoors and outdoors as part of the same picture that can’t be separated.

Indoor air solution providers who enable their users to track live air pollution exposure not only at home but also on the go, stand to distinguish themselves from competitors by leading the way here.

2. Increased Government Attention

Governments have the power to make big health-related legislative changes and investments in healthy workplace air quality. The German Government already dedicated a €500m investment into improving ventilation systems across public buildings and enabled eligible sites to apply for CO2 sensor funding. In March 2022, White House officials issued a Clean Air in Buildings Challenge, calling on all schools, colleges, universities, and other organizations to adopt key strategies for improving indoor air quality in their buildings. 

Such changes create new opportunities for air purifier and HVAC brands to meet future standards in advance and go beyond current minimums for outdoor air usage, energy efficiency, and air treatment capabilities for commercial spaces.

3. New Building Standards

The International WELL Building Institute developed its WELL Health-Safety Rating standards as a certification for buildings that follow scientifically-backed guidelines to keep occupants safe from virus transmission and poor air quality among other environmental hazards. Among their adopters you’ll find the Empire State Building & Yankee Stadium.

USGBC LEED, AirRated, UL, and the BREEAM system all share WELL’s goal of making building healthier, making their guidelines effective blueprints for IAQ management solution providers seeking to enhance their commercial offerings.

By integrating additional environmental factors such as humidity, temperature, and outdoor air quality, IAQ providers can ensure their meeting the requirements that building health certifiers prioritize today.

4. Combining Indoor Air Treatment Systems With Air Quality Data

Environmental data and insights provide effective solutions for preventing Sick Building Syndrome impacting countless workplaces worldwide.

Commercial indoor air providers should leverage environmental intelligence to empower customers – building managers and occupants – to understand the air they breathe and act on tailored recommendations to minimize the impact on health, wellness, and productivity.

Making vital air quality information accessible via apps and connected dashboards enables IAQ brands to add value beyond traditional air treatment methods and engage consumers with one of their top priorities – health.

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Tamir Kessel
Tamir Kessel

Head of Business & Corporate Development @BreezoMeter. I'm a multicultural growth leader with experience in management consulting and market analysis. I enjoy developing new technology businesses and ecosystems - and have plenty of experience when it comes to applying environmental intelligence to drive business growth.