What we do – and don’t - bring into our buildings can have a significant impact on the quality of the environment within.
Ever step into that new construction smell and wonder why your throat is sore and your eyes are burning? Common pollutants inside our spaces, at the office, at school and at home are known cancer-causing toxins. Yes, that’s right. This is pretty scary when you consider, according the EPA, that the typical American spends more than 90% of their time indoors, and that indoor levels of pollutants may be two to five times higher, and occasionally more than 100 times higher, than outdoor levels.
Couple that with the fact that more than 30% of new and remodeled buildings worldwide may be the subject of excessive complaints related to indoor air quality (IAQ) according to the World Health Organization. With increases in asthma and growth in the number of chemical pollutants entering into our buildings, there is no doubt that we have a problem on our hands.
With a direct link between air quality within buildings and human health, comfort and well-being, the building design and construction industry has taken an active interest in mitigating problems as associated with poor indoor air quality, and physicians even treat those with Building Related Illness (BRI) and/or Sick Building Syndrome (SBS).
Building Related Illness
When specific symptoms such as coughing, chest tightness, fever, chills and muscle aches can be attributed directly to building contaminants in airtight, poorly ventilated buildings, then Building Related Illness (BRI) can be clearly identified by a medical professional.
Specific BRIs are those for which a link between building-related exposure and illness can be proven. Specific examples include:
- Legionella infection
- Occupational asthma
- Hypersensitivity pneumonitis
- Inhalational fever
- Humidifier fever
Nonspecific BRIs are those for which a link between building-related exposure and illness is more difficult to prove. Therefore, the term "Sick Building Syndrome" has been used to refer to illnesses that occur in clusters within a building and that often cause nonspecific symptoms.
Sick Building Syndrome
The term Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) is used to describe situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified. The complaints may be localized in a particular room or zone, or may be widespread throughout the building.
Symptoms of Sick Building Syndrome may include:
- Itchy, irritated, dry or watery eyes
- Nasal congestion
- Throat soreness or tightness
- Dry itchy skin or unexplained rashes
- Headache, lethargy, or difficulty concentrating.
Some building-related factors appear to account for symptoms in some instances. These factors include higher building temperature, higher humidity, and poor ventilation, typically with a failure to incorporate sufficient fresh air from outdoors and an introduction of a number of chemical pollutants and toxins into the space.
But Is It Really the Building Making Us Sick?
Sure, sure, I hear what you are saying. There are so many ways to get sick, how do you know if it's truly the building and its contents or other causes? What about people with acute chemical sensitivities or allergies? What about job related stress? Overall dissatisfaction? That jerky boss? Maybe the building is just exacerbating already existing conditions?
What To Do If IAQ Problems Do Occur?
One key element in resolving IAQ problems is to identify problems and determine how serious they are and how difficult they may be to solve. Narrowing down possible sources of a problem can help you determine what type of help you need, and logging issues helps to identify patterns and resolving issues can reduce or eliminate liability. Follow these steps:
- Take notes and create a log:
- The complaints or symptoms of building occupants
- How many persons have problems or concerns
- Where these occupants are located and their activities in the building
- When and how often the problems occur
- General observations from the people in the building about the indoor environment.
- Encourage persons with specific medical problems to see their healthcare provider.
- Get Educated. Learn what creates indoor air quality issues, and what can be done to mitigate the problem.
- Attempt to remedy the situation. After you've done your homework, implement solutions to the IAQ problems and continue to monitor and seek feedback from building occupants.
- Get tested.
- Seek professional help.
- Follow the precautionary principle.
How Was This Problem Created Anyway?
Frequently, problems result when a building is operated or maintained in a manner that is inconsistent with its original design or prescribed operating procedures. Other times, indoor air problems can be just plain old bad design. And in some cases, the way the occupants of the building use the space may create the problem. For example, a neighbor in a condo building smokes like a chimney and it affects you directly, or a contractor lays down toxic adhesives within a commercial office remodel.