Is it ”Sick Building Syndrome” or “Building Related Illness”?

Indoor Air Quality

Indoor Air Quality Blurb

Is it ”Sick Building Syndrome” or “Building Related Illness”?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 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. In contrast, the term “building related illness” (BRI) is used when symptoms of diagnosable illness are identified and can be attributed directly to airborne building contaminants.

Indicators of SBS include:

  • Building occupants complain of symptoms associated with acute discomfort, e.g., headache; eye, nose, or throat irritation; dry cough; dry or itchy skin; dizziness and nausea; difficulty in concentrating; fatigue; and sensitivity to odors.
    • The cause of the symptoms is not known.
    • Most of the complainants report relief soon after leaving the building.

Indicators of BRI include:

  • Building occupants complain of symptoms such as cough; chest tightness; fever, chills; and muscle aches
    • The symptoms can be clinically defined and have clearly identifiable causes.
    • Complainants may require prolonged recovery times after leaving the building.

Causes of Sick Building Syndrome

The following have been cited causes of or contributing factors to sick building syndrome:

  • Inadequate ventilation: (ASHRAE) recently revised its ventilation standard to provide a minimum of 15 cfm of outdoor air per person (20 cfm/person in office spaces).
    • Chemical contaminants from indoor sources: Most indoor air pollution comes from sources inside the building.
    • Chemical contaminants from outdoor sources: Outdoor air that enters a building.
    • Biological contaminants: Bacteria, molds, pollen, and viruses are types of biological contaminants.

Building Investigation Procedures The goal of a building investigation is to identify and solve indoor air quality complaints in a way that prevents them from recurring and which avoids the creation of other problems. To achieve this goal, it is necessary for the investigator(s) to discover whether a complaint is actually related to indoor air quality, identify the cause of the complaint, and determine the most appropriate corrective actions.

An indoor air quality investigation procedure is best characterized as a cycle of information gathering, hypothesis formation, and hypothesis testing. It generally begins with a walkthrough inspection of the problem area to provide information about the four basic factors that influence indoor air quality:

  • The occupants
    • The HVAC system
    • Possible pollutant pathways
    • Possible contaminant sources.

Solutions Solutions to sick building syndrome and building related illness usually include combinations of the following:

  • Pollutant source removal: Examples include routine maintenance of HVAC systems (including cleaning and remediation).
    • Increasing ventilation rates and air distribution: HVAC systems should be designed to meet ventilation standards in local building codes.
    • Air cleaning can be a useful adjunct to source control and ventilation but has certain limitations.
    • Education and communication are important elements in both remedial and preventive indoor air quality management programs.

More detail on this subject is available on the Environmental Protection Agency website.

Doug Long, ASCS
Power Vac America, Inc.

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