Has a strange new illness been plaguing your office employees over the past few months, only to mysteriously vanish as soon as they leave work? Do their symptoms include: acute discomfort, headaches, throat irritation, dry cough, dry or itchy skin, dizziness and nausea, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, and sensitivity to odors? What your employees may be experiencing is not a clever ruse to avoid working but real side effects that may be caused by sick building syndrome.
What is SBS?
"Sick building syndrome" (SBS) describes situations in which occupants in certain buildings, or even certain areas experience health and comfort effects that seem to be correlated with time spent within that building. When these occupants leave the building or spend an increased amount of time away from the site, their symptoms will alleviate or disappear. Even the most seasoned facility manager may completely overlook SBS in a routine inspection as most of the causes are due to air quality.
Common Root Causes
There are three main types of causes, all of which are air contaminants. Unsurprisingly, mold is the biggest offender and the direct cause of nearly 80% of all SBS cases. Mold only becomes a problem when mold spores land on areas susceptible to high humidity levels. They will digest whatever they have landed on to keep surviving. Mold infestations can be caused by pipe breaks, water leaks, and other forms of poor ventilation. Mold can even be caused by overwatering plants! Mold spores can spread through an entire building through the air duct system. Mold spores may trigger asthma attacks in people who have asthma or are allergic to mold. Even in individuals who are not allergic, mold can cause irritation in the eyes, skin, and airway.
Poor air circulation and inadequate ventilation is the second leading cause of SBS. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, indoor air may be up to 100x more polluted than outdoor air. If you aren’t changing the filters on your HVAC system every 3 months, you may be helping circulate dust and contaminants in your building. Areas to consider are computers, workstations, and AC units. Your computers and keyboards contain dust, lint, pollen, and dirt particles that have been building up over time. Additionally, black dust can be created from misaligned parts in your air conditioner or deteriorating duct liners. These particles can be dangerous if inhaled.
Chemical or biological contaminants are also perpetrators of SBS. Indoor chemical contaminants can come from adhesives, carpeting, copy machines, and upholstery. Outdoor chemical contaminants can enter a building through poorly located air vents, windows, and other openings. Biological contaminants include pollen, bacteria, and viruses. They are often found in stagnant water accumulating in ducts, humidifiers and drainage areas. Insects or animal fecal matter can be a source of biological contaminants.
Once your building has a confirmed case of SBS, the steps to recovery can be costly and lengthy. Depending on the severity, you may require air cleaning. Depending on the types of contaminants and your industry, different air filters may need to be installed.
When was your last comprehensive walkthrough of a building? Have you ever completed an indoor air quality investigation procedure? Don’t forget to conduct routine maintenance of your HVAC systems. Your HVAC system should be fully inspected and serviced at least twice a year.
If you suspect that you may have a case of SBS, report the situation to the office manager and facility manager and request a thorough environmental health inspection. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Take preventative action to keep your building and most importantly, your employees, healthy. Get a quote or schedule your first HVAC maintenance appointment today by emailing email@example.com.