The Air You Breathe: “Sick Building Syndrome” and Building-Related Illness

Sick Building Syndrome (SBS). Building Related Illness (BRI).These are terms that have recently made it to the forefront of environmental issues, usually as they relate to the workplace.The ambient air in the workplace and on airplanes has been studied and regulated. Current funding has been appropriated to further research the Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) of public places. But the question has to be asked, “Can poor IAQ affect your home environment?” The answer is a resounding, “YES!”

Energy problems, first encountered in the early 1970s, necessitated a re-evaluation of construction practices and materials. The effort to reduce dependency on foreign oil resulted in more energy efficient building practices. Unfortunately, the new buildings were no longer able to “breathe.” As the recirculation of the inside air increased, so did the evergrowing list of contaminants. Gradually the air has become a breeding ground for a number of maladies resulting in Sick Building Syndrome. SBS occurs when building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that are apparently related to the time they spend in the building, but in which no specific illness or cause can be identified.

Symptoms associated with SBS include: headaches, nausea, dizziness, respiratory problems, coughing, wheezing and eye, nose or throat irritations, just to name a few. According to David Levine of Scientific Control, Inc.,”I am called in to test the air in a home when clients have been to their doctor ten times and still can’t find out why they feel so poorly. Often, they’ll say they feel better at work than they do at home.” “Sometimes,” said Ernest Michaelson of ECM Environmental Consultants, “a person may even feel better in one part of a house than they do in another.”

Building Related Illness, a more serious condition, is brought on by exposure to the building air where symptoms of diagnosable illness are identified (e.g. certain allergies or infections) and can be directly attributed to environmental agents in the air. BRIs account for a 69 percent increase in requests for investigation by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health over the last fifteen years.

Basically, the sources for SBS and BRI break down into two major categories contributing to IAQ problems: Heating, Air Conditioning and Ventilation (HVAC) Systems, and contaminants. The HVAC system controls the circulation of air throughout the building, the introduction of fresh air into the mix, and the filtration of airborne particles. Poorly ventilated or seldom cleaned, these systems can pump contaminants through the house again and again.

The list of contaminants is long and getting longer. The number one concern on the part of homeowners today is a naturally occurring gas called radon. (Radon is currently the second leading cause of lung cancer in this country). Residuals from a burning process that find leaking chimneys or gas furnaces can cause an increase in the carbon monoxide levels. Off-gases from the formaldehyde base in new carpet padding or fumes from synthetic fibers can also be irritants. Business machine off-gases and tobacco smoke add to the problem. Biological contaminants such as mildew, mold, dust mites, bacteria and pollens rank high as potential culprits. Jim Flannery of Consolidated Safety Services reports, “People don’t realize that strep and staph infections can grow in their duct work.” Other pollutants are hazardous airborne particulates, such as asbestos and dust from oxidizing lead paint. This list just scratches the surface of the possibilities.

There are many strategies a homeowner can employ to diagnose and remedy the IAQ problems within his or her own environment. Questions about IAQ can be answered by an inspection of the premises, generally over a twenty-four hour period.This inspection results in a report designating the trouble spots. No single test, however, can identify all of the components of ambient air. Testing usually includes: temperature, relative humidity, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, radon, volatile organic air contaminants, fresh air supply and exchange and air velocity. Occasionally, more detailed laboratory testing might be necessary to clearly identify a contaminant. Upon conclusion of the evaluation of the test results, an extensive report including the findings and where they fall on the acceptable standards scale will identify problem areas. Recommendations for mitigation should also be included in the report. David Levine assures that, “This testing is relatively inexpensive.”

Some remedies may be as simple as keeping lids tightly secured on paint and solvent cans or changing the filters on an air handling system. David Levine suggests regular cleaning of the duct work, especially if the home is older or there has been new construction in the area. Jim Flannery recommends a constant airflow in the case of new carpet, draperies or furniture. Ernest Michaelson says, “Off-gases from new carpet will often dissipate over a 3 to 12 month period.” The best precaution against irritation is a proper balance of airflow. Keeping the humidity regulated is also effective. Oneil M. Banks, PhD, a Certified Industrial Hygienist with Scientific Control, confirms, “Molds can not grow when the humidity is maintained between 30 and 50 percent.”

Many other remedies exist; however, those methods may be more complicated or costly. As an example, a ventilation system may be needed to mitigate rate. At this time the Maryland Department of Environment encourages builders to use “safer substitutes” during the design, construction and remodeling of homes in an effort to prevent future problems. Sick Building Syndrome and Building Related Illness are the environmental buzzwords of the Ô90s. For a chemically-sensitive segment of the society, these words can hold the possible explanation for chronic discomfort that has been plaguing them. Since Americans spend an average of 90 percent of their time indoors, be it home, workplace or entertainment spot, perhaps even the less chemically-sensitive are affected. Health care reform will continue to heighten interest in this important environmental issue. Meanwhile, local environmental agencies can supply information regarding “the air you breathe.”


by Toni Meixner

Originally presented in Baltimore Resource Journal, Vol 9, No. 2, Summer 1995, Baltimore Maryland.

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