Sick building syndrome is a topic of some debate. Because of the inconsistency of symptoms and the difficulty in pinning down the source of the issue, some say that it’s all in peoples’ heads. However, it’s been recognized as a real issue by the Environmental Protection Agency for over 15 years. So what is sick building syndrome, exactly? Well, the EPA defines sick building syndrome as
“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.”
When multiple people from the same workplace have chronic health issues, it’s possible that sick building syndrome is to blame. Sick building syndrome doesn’t discriminate between building types: it has been pinned to residential buildings, office buildings, libraries, hospitals, and other types of facilities.
How Common is Sick Building Syndrome?
It’s hard to pin down, but it’s possible that somewhere between 10% and 30% of all buildings could be “infected.”
Even within the same workplace, people may react differently. Occupants of sick buildings often have the following symptoms:
- difficulty concentrating
- eye, nose, and throat irritation
- dizziness or nausea
What’s the Cause of Sick Building Syndrome?
According to the EPA, there are a couple of things that are to blame for sick building syndrome, and they’re all related to poor indoor air quality:
- Inadequate ventilation within the building
- Circulation of chemical contaminants (like VOCs, exhaust, smoke, etc.)
- Circulation of biological contaminants (like bacteria, pollen, mold, or viruses)
Is My HVAC System to Blame?
When you hear “ventilation” and “circulation,” you might immediately think of your HVAC system. HVAC stands for “heating, ventilation, and air conditioning,” and it’s almost constantly running and spreading air throughout your building. If that air is contaminated in any way, it certainly makes sense that your HVAC could be contributing to the symptoms that are frequently attributed to sick building syndrome. The EPA says there are 4 main factors that influence indoor air quality, and HVAC is one of them. (The other 3 factors are the occupants, possible pollutant pathways, and possible contaminants; but for now, we’ll focus on HVAC systems.)
So how can you maintain or improve your indoor air quality?
Here are two simple tips:
Keep a few indoor plants. Decorate your building and improve your air quality by adding a few houseplants. Certain types of plants are well known to improve indoor air quality! Here’s a list of plants that are approved by NASA to improve air quality! For more information on using plants to improve IAQ issues see this post.
Regularly maintain your HVAC system. These systems should be checked, cleaned, and maintained at least every 6 months. Regular HVAC maintenance includes replacing filters, inspecting all the parts, checking for leaks, checking for mold and dust, and cleaning out air ducts. It’s easy to schedule regular HVAC maintenance. Not only will regular maintenance ensure better air quality and greatly reduce the risk of sick building syndrome, but it should help you catch potential issues before they turn into big problems.