In the US and many other countries commercial buildings can sometimes suffer from environmental problems that can adversely impact the occupants of the building. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has coined a term for these buildings “Sick Buildings” and a term for the condition, “Sick Building Syndrome” (SBS).
Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) is defined as 20% or more of occupants in a building complaining of discomfort and health related issues that are linked to time spent in the building. People experience symptoms such as headaches, ear, nose and throat irritations, dry skin, itching, nausea, dizziness, and sensitivity to odors. The symptoms persist while in the building but are quickly relieved when not in the building.
How big a problem is this? Pretty big, in a 1984 report done by WHO (World Health Organization) it was estimated that 30% of buildings suffer from IAQ (Indoor Air Quality) issues and SBS. In addition illness lead to absenteeism and lost productivity. The — USEPA has estimated that businesses in the US lose 60 billion dollars per year due to lost productivity. Sick buildings and their effects on people can have huge financial impacts.
What are the causes of SBS? There can be many factors that contribute to SBS. A building that was designed for one purpose and is being used for another, for example, the building was designed for office activities and is being used as a printing operation. That building and its ventilation system wouldn’t have been designed for that purpose. Chemical contamination can be a cause. Chemical usage inside the building, materials and products used in the building can all off gas VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds) which can produce irritations. Chemical or other pollutants carried into the building, for example, a factory opens up nearby and now disturbing odors are noticed in the building. Also biological contamination, mold, mildew, and bacteria mostly from uncontrolled moisture can cause health symptoms and discomfort by occupants.
VOC’s and exposure to them are the most common cause for SBS. Exposure to VOC’s will cause many of the above described symptoms to susceptible individuals, and also the symptoms are relieved when exposure to the VOC is reduced or eliminated. This is a similar pattern to SBS complaints.
What can you do to correct or prevent SBS? Three important factors to consider for any building’s air quality are
- Source Control
- Air Cleaning
Minimizing the source of pollutants inside or entering into the building is important. Chemical usage and material selections that are low VOC emitting should be used. Also the building envelope should be checked to see if unwanted air and pollutants are entering the building. Water intrusion and moisture and humidity control is also important, as this can lead to mold and mildew and associated problems. Also building maintenance records should be kept and maintenance performed to schedule. Also every building should appoint an IAQ manager to maintain air testing records, IAQ complaint records, and address other environmental issues.
Ventilation is important for health and comfort in any building. The ventilation design should be done to ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers) standards. The proper design of delivering air in a balanced fashion is critical to an indoor air improvement success. Poor ventilation design and poor pressurization can often cause or contribute to SBS situations.
Air Cleaning is also a critical point to consider. Even with minimizing pollutant sources and proper ventilation and air movement, the building still needs to address airborne contaminants that can be a byproduct of the building, its location and the occupants and their activities. Bi-Polar air ionization, air purification is one method that has been used very successfully in these situations.
The US Army has installed over 500 of these systems to help prevent and correct SBS situations in many of their bases. The bi-polar technology presents several advantages, it address VOC’s very effectively which as discussed earlier are a major source of SBS complaints, it easily adapts to existing building heat and cooling systems, it is a very low maintenance product so it retains its effectiveness without requiring frequent attention, and it also operates efficiently, many buildings have used these systems to reduce outside make up air and save significant energy costs while providing a better air quality for occupants.
With some knowledge of how SBS situations can happen and the factors that can cause SBS, building operators can structure a plan to prevent this unfortunate situation and also to address any building related complaints quickly and effectively.