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What is Sick Building Syndrome?

Written by Portland Clinic of Natural Health on November 1, 2023

The term "Sick Building Syndrome" (SBS) might sound like a plotline from a science fiction story, but it's a real-world concern with tangible impacts on our health and well-being. SBS refers to a collection of symptoms experienced by occupants of a specific building – symptoms that can't be attributed to specific diseases or other specific causes.

Symptoms of SBS

Common symptoms include:

  1. Headaches and dizziness
  2. Fatigue
  3. Nausea
  4. Eye, nose, or throat irritation
  5. Skin irritation
  6. Difficulty concentrating
  7. Sensitivity to odors

Notably, these symptoms tend to diminish or disappear altogether once the individual leaves the building.

What Causes SBS?

While the exact cause of SBS is not always clear, several factors have been associated with the syndrome:

  1. Poor ventilation: One of the main culprits, inadequate ventilation can result in reduced air exchange, allowing pollutants to build up.
  2. Chemical contaminants from indoor sources: This can include products used in building materials, like adhesives, upholstery, and manufactured wood. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) emitted by some indoor materials can also contribute to SBS.
  3. Chemical contaminants from outdoor sources: Pollutants from motor vehicle exhaust, plumbing vents, and building exhausts can enter a building and contribute to SBS.
  4. Biological contaminants: These can include pollen, bacteria, viruses, and molds. Wet or damp areas in a building can become breeding grounds for mold and bacteria, exacerbating SBS symptoms.

Evidence on SBS

Numerous studies have delved into SBS, its symptoms, and possible causes. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported in the 1980s that up to 30% of new and even remodeled structures/ buildings worldwide might be linked to symptoms of SBS. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have also highlighted the potential impacts of poor indoor air quality and the importance of adequate ventilation.

How to Address SBS

Building owners and managers can take several steps to address and prevent SBS:

Increase ventilation: This can be as simple as opening windows or as comprehensive as improving HVAC systems.

Regular maintenance: HVAC systems should be inspected and maintained regularly to ensure they are working efficiently.

Address water leaks and moisture: Promptly attend to any water damage to prevent the growth of mold and bacteria.

Reduce indoor pollutants: Opt for low-VOC products, and ensure that areas where chemicals are stored are well-ventilated.

Mold Toxicity and its Role in SBS

One of the most prominent culprits in Sick Building Syndrome is mold toxicity. Mold can grow in buildings due to moisture problems, whether from leaks, high humidity, or condensation. As mold grows, it releases spores and mycotoxins into the air. Inhaling or coming into contact with these contaminants can lead to a range of health issues.

Scientific studies have shown that prolonged exposure to mold can cause respiratory problems, exacerbate asthma, and lead to allergic reactions. Mycotoxins, which are toxic compounds produced by certain mold species, have been linked to neurological problems and immunosuppression in more severe cases. Addressing mold issues promptly is crucial, not just for the integrity of the building but more importantly, for the health of its occupants. Regular inspections for mold growth, especially in damp or humid areas, and immediate remediation when mold is discovered, can significantly reduce the risks associated with mold toxicity in relation to SBS.

A Healthy Indoor Environment a Key to Optimal Health

Sick Building Syndrome, while still a subject of ongoing research, has enough evidence pointing towards the importance of a healthy indoor environment. Recognizing, addressing, and preventing SBS can result in healthier, more productive occupants, emphasizing the importance of considering both design and ongoing maintenance in our buildings.


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  3. Sayan HE, Dülger S. Evaluation of the relationship between sick building syndrome complaints among hospital employees and indoor environmental quality. Med Lav. 2021 Apr 20;112(2):153-161. doi: 10.23749/mdl.v112i2.11012. PMID: 33881009; PMCID: PMC8095327.
  4. Lyles WB, Greve KW, Bauer RM, Ware MR, Schramke CJ, Crouch J, Hicks A. Sick building syndrome. South Med J. 1991 Jan;84(1):65-71, 76. doi: 10.1097/00007611-199101000-00015. PMID: 1986430.
  5. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality. https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/inside-story-guide-indoor-air-quality
  6. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2014). Sick Building Syndrome. https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2014-08/documents/sick_building_factsheet.pdf

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