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Linking illness to indoor air quality

April 1, 2012

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Is there a difference between sick building syndrome and building-related illness?

Responding is Paul Burnside, technical product support, Grainger, Janesville, WI.

Answer: According to the Environmental Protection Agency, people spend about 90 percent of their time indoors. This means that health risks related to indoor air quality – the air quality within and around buildings and structures, especially as it relates to the health and comfort of building occupants – may be greater than those caused by outdoor air pollution. In many cases, indoor air quality can be so poor that it causes people to feel sick or contract an illness, contributing to increased absences and lower productivity.

One such illness is “sick building syndrome,” a term used to describe situations in which the occupants of a building experience acute health effects that appear to be linked to the amount of time spent inside a building. Complaints can be widespread throughout the building or isolated to a particular room or zone. Symptoms can range from headache; eye, nose or throat irritation; a dry cough; dry or itchy skin; dizziness and nausea; difficulty concentrating; fatigue; and sensitivity to odors. People with SBS report relief from their symptoms soon after leaving the building for extended periods of time, such as the end of a shift or weekends.

“Building-related illness,” on the other hand, occurs when the occupant’s symptoms of diagnosable illnesses are identified and can be attributed directly to airborne building contaminants. The occupants of the building may experience symptoms such as cough, chest tightness, fever, chills and muscle aches. While people with SBS find relief from symptoms as soon as they are removed from the exposure, those with BRI may require extended recovery time after leaving the building. The most notable case of BRI occurred in 1976 at a Legionnaires convention in Philadelphia. The outbreak known as Legionnaires’ disease infected 182 Legionnaires and claimed 29 lives.

Synthetic materials used in modern building materials and office furniture has increased indoor air pollutant levels. These indoor contaminants may include adhesives, carpeting, upholstery and manufactured wood products, which can contain chemicals such as formaldehyde, methylene chloride and benzene. Factors that contribute to SBS or BRI include inadequate ventilation, chemical contaminants from indoor or outdoor sources, and biological contaminants.

Inadequate ventilation can lead to the buildup of biological contaminants in building structures. Inadequate ventilation occurs when heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems are poorly designed or maintained. Such systems may not effectively distribute air to the occupants of the building.

In addition, outdoor chemical contaminants such as vehicle exhaust, plumbing vents and building exhaust can enter buildings through poorly designed and located intake vents, windows and other openings. Biological contaminants include bacteria, mold, pollen and viruses. Stagnant water of drain pans, humidifiers or ducts, and roofing or plumbing leaks can lead to the collection of water inside building structures, such as ducting, ceiling tiles, insulation, upholstery or carpeting. If left unattended, bacteria and mold can breed, which can cause potential health concerns.

To help combat SBS and BRI, education on indoor air quality management is vital. Implementing an effective indoor air quality program can help eliminate the causes associated with SBS and BRI problems. When management, maintenance personnel and building occupants fully communicate and understand the causes and consequences of indoor air quality problems, they can work more effectively to help eliminate them.

Editor’s Note: This article represents the independent views of the author and should not be construed as National Safety Council endorsements.

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