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Coined in the 1970s, the term "sick building syndrome", describes the presence of common symptoms amongst a significant population of the occupants of a particular building; the symptoms being present when they are in the building but absent when out of the building. There are a number of theories as to the cause but the evidence suggests that it is the result of long-term contact with low-levels of chemicals, such as in an office with poor ventilation. As a result of this exposure, some people develop sensitivity and have reactions to the chemicals even at low levels that most people can tolerate.
There are multiple and seemingly unrelated symptoms which range from specific symptoms such as itchy eyes, skin rashes, and nasal allergy symptoms, to more vague symptoms such as fatigue, aches and pains, and sensitivity to odours.
The US Environmental Protection Agency reported that sick building syndrome is probable when the following circumstances are found:
Sick building syndrome manifests as multiple symptoms dependent on individuals and is not a specific building related illness (a term used for situations in which signs and symptoms of diagnosable illness are readily identified and can be attributed directly to specific airborne building contaminants or pathogens). The cause(s) of symptoms in cases of sick building syndrome are often hard to identify and in many cases a range of factors appear to contribute.
Although the problem of sick building syndrome has long been recognised, there are limited statistics regarding the extent of the problem.
A report by the World Health Organization (1984) suggested, up to 30% of new and renovated buildings worldwide may generate excessive complaints related to indoor air quality . this high rate may be associated with modern construction materials that release irritating volatile organic chemicals.
In another US report, 24% of office workers, questioned at random, reported poor air quality in their work place and 20% believed this impaired their ability to do their job effectively.
Once a sick building has been diagnosed measures need to be taken to ensure the cause(s) are removed to make it safe for the occupants.