Allergies, Clean Air

Sick Building Syndrome, Mold, And IAQ Concerns

sick-building-syndrome-iaqWhen spending time indoors, do you ever feel sick, general discomfort, or some other ailment? If you walk outside do you suddenly feel better? If this happens to you, then you might be experiencing symptoms associated with sick building syndrome. This syndrome is the result of exposure to mold, bacteria, pollen, viruses, poor air ventilation, and chemical contaminants that might be found in the indoor air.

Issues related to sick building syndrome, mold, and other potentially harmful compounds that affect occupants of buildings began in the latter half of the 1900s. To help improve the energy efficiency of buildings, building standards for ventilation were reduced from 15 cubic feet per minute of outside air per building occupant to just 5 cubic feet per minute.

This change helped to cut energy use, but led to inadequate ventilation, which directly impacted indoor air quality, the comfort of building occupants, and resulted in decreased work productivity, poor concentration, feelings of dissatisfaction, or issues with physical health.

The Potentially Harmful Stuff In The Air

The cause of sick building syndrome is a lack of outside air flowing into indoor spaces. Without fresher, outdoor air to dilute the stuffy, polluted indoor air, people are left to breathe oxygen that is mixed with several other chemicals, particles, and things that could affect our health.


Mold spreads by releasing spores into the air that can begin to grow once they find an area with enough moisture and nutrients. Mold also produces a compound known a mycotoxin. This compound is known to impact human health in several ways, including:

  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Asthma

Mold is a common problem following flooding, but it can also be present in bathrooms, the heating and cooling system, basements, or any area where humidity is not well controlled. You can minimize the chances that mold will grow by maintaining relative humidity levels between 30 and 50%.

Bacteria, Pollen, and Viruses

Bacteria, pollen, viruses and most other biological contaminants can be found in the air, ducts, carpets, humidifiers, storage areas in the ceilings, surfaces, and most anywhere else. Just like mold, these organisms need moisture and nutrients to grow. In the case of bacteria and viruses, both are commonly found in the body where they incubate before spreading when you exhale, cough, or sneeze. Signs and symptoms of exposure to these contaminants can include:

  • Cough
  • Chest tightness
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Muscle aches
  • Allergies
  • Congestion
  • Sinus irritation and pressure
  • Respiratory infections

When a building has poor ventilation, many of these biological compounds easily spread because the air is effectively “trapped” inside, which provides ample opportunity for these contaminants to spread.

Chemicals Contaminants

Besides organic material, another source of indoor air pollution is volatile organic compounds. These are chemicals that contain carbon but are not necessarily considered “living.” Normally, the use of the term VOCs refers to any compound used during manufacturing that can later impact human health as a result of ingesting or inhaling the compound. Sources of chemical contaminants can include:

  • Adhesives
  • Carpeting
  • Upholstery
  • Wood products
  • Computer equipment
  • Pesticides
  • Synthetic cleaners
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Automotive exhaust
  • Industrial sources

Exposure to any of these over a short or long period of time has been found to result in acute and chronic health problems.

Additional Factors

Some factors that result in sick building syndrome are simply the result of aesthetics or the design of a building, and don’t have a direct physical effect on a person. Rather, these factors affect the psychological wellbeing of a building’s occupant.

  • Fluorescent lighting
  • Temperature
  • Humidity
  • Noise
  • Ergonomics (lack of space, color choice, chair comfort, headphone comfort, frequency of breaks, etc.)
  • Workload

What makes sick building syndrome interesting as a condition is that it is poorly defined. Meaning that some people will not be affected by temperature or choice of lighting, while another person might only find relief from either redesigning the entire office, or leaving the job.

How Do You Know If SBS Affects You?

The best way to find out if sick building syndrome affects you is to walk outside. Do any of the following symptoms seem to go away once you get fresh air?

  • Feelings of stress and frustration
  • Lack of motivation
  • Fatigue or lethargic feelings
  • Grumpy or unsociable behavior
  • Irritation of the eyes, nose, or throat
  • Poor concentration or jumbled thoughts
  • Any of the symptoms listed in the previous sections

Keep in mind that the factors that contribute to these issues may not be the only underlying issue. Choice of diet, sleep habits, exercise and a number of other life-affecting situations and choices may play a role in your feelings of wellness during the day.

Outline A Plan To Improve Indoor Air Quality

The best way to handle indoor air problems is to create a plan that will help to improve air quality. Typically, you can take a similar approach to air quality issues at work as you can at home, but there are a few differences.

Remember to stay vigilant and identify other potential contributing factors of indoor air quality that can cause sick building syndrome. This will hopefully make spending time indoors, especially when you are at work, more comfortable.

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