The sick building syndrome (SBS), also known as Tight Building Syndrome (TBS), is a medical condition in which the occupants of a building experience comfort- or health-related effects. While the causes of the symptoms are unknown, they are attributed to the physical environment of buildings.
SBS is widespread and may occur in apartment buildings, offices, hospitals and educational institutions. It causes reduced work performance, loss of productivity and increased absenteeism.
Symptoms of SBS
The most common symptoms of SBS include:
- Dry or itchy skin
- Dry or sore throat – may cause difficulty swallowing, upper airway irritation and hoarseness of the voice
- Dry, irritated or watery eyes.
- Running, itchy or stuffy nose. Occupants may also experience nosebleeds.
- Increased incidence of asthma attacks
- Dizziness and nausea
Less specific symptoms of SBS include headaches, irritability, fatigue, sensitivity to odours, difficulty concentrating and personality changes.
These symptoms are temporary and usually resolve soon after the occupants leave the building.
Etiology of SBD
While the specific causes of this medical condition remain unknown, most experts believe that the symptoms may be caused by several factors. These include:
- Inadequate ventilation
Inadequate ventilation and poor indoor air quality is the most common cause of SBS. Some of the factors that contribute to indoor air pollution include malfunctioning heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems (HVAC systems) and poor design and construction of buildings among others.
The Workplace Regulations 1992 (WHSW) states that the amount of outdoor ventilation per occupant should not fall below five to eight litres per second. However, the appropriate rate depends on several factors including the type of occupation, amount of floor space available per occupant and whether there are sources of airborne contamination. Additionally, all the HVAC systems need to be in good working condition to ensure they effectively distribute air to the occupants.
- Chemical contaminants
- From outdoor sources – emissions such as car exhaust fumes, dust, asbestos, radon, lead paint, and formaldehyde can enter a building through the window and other openings causing indoor air pollution.
- From indoor sources – one of the most common indoor air contaminants is volatile organic compounds (VOC). VOCs are carbon-based compounds found in cleaning agents, manufactured wood products, photocopiers, printers, adhesives and upholstery among others. Carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and respirable particles produced by combustion products can also contribute to poor indoor air quality.
- Biological contaminants
Common biological contaminants like viruses, pollen, bacteria, and fungus can breed in water that has collected on upholstery, carpeting, ceiling tiles or insulation or in stagnant water that has accumulated in drain pans, humidifiers, and ducts. Bird droppings and insect body parts can also be a source or biological contaminants.
- Temperature and humidity
A very hot or cold environment can cause distress among employees. For instance, dry, airless conditions can result in a sore throat, cough and, in some cases, increased risk of dehydration.
- Noise – noise levels – whether of low or high level, continuous, intermittent or impulsive – can add further stress to the occupants of a building.
- Poor or inadequate lighting – lack of natural daylight inside a building or the use of lighting that is too dull, too bright or does not emit the right light in the workplace can cause discomfort to the occupants.
Other factors that may cause SBS include poor ergonomics, bad office designs and electromagnetic radiation emitted from gadgets such as computers, microwaves, and televisions. However, it is important to note that some symptoms may result from other causes. These may include job-related stress or dissatisfaction, acute sensitivity, and illness contracted outside the building among other psychosocial factors.