HomeHealthJul 2016

 

Does Your Office Suffer From Sick-Building Syndrome?

You may joke that you're allergic to work, and you could be right! If you regularly experience fatigue, or cold or asthma-like symptoms while at the office, your building could actually be making you sick.

So-called sick buildings have indoor air that is compromised in some way. This can include temperature thatís too high or too low for worker comfort, high humidity, mold from water leaks, chemical emissions, and being too tightly sealed to let in adequate fresh air from the outside. All these issues can add up to workers feeling ill at work.

What Causes a Building to Get Sick?

Several issues can contribute to sick building syndrome:

1. Water leaks. These can cause microorganisms like mold to grow, and "When you have dampness or mold in a building, people have more respiratory symptoms of all kinds," says Mark Mendell, PhD, a former researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (a member of the national laboratory system supported by the U.S. Department of Energy through its Office of Science) as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)/National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). In fact, "Dampness and mold are very strongly linked to diagnosed asthma."

2. Temperature extremes. Another common problem is that the thermostat is set too low or too high. Of course, comfort levels vary from person to person, but the Occupational Safety and Health Administration generally recommends an indoor temperature between 68 degrees and 76 degrees Fahrenheit, and a humidity level between 20 percent and 60 percent for optimum worker comfort and health.

3. New or recently remodeled buildings. If youíre working in a brand-new or recently remodeled building, you have a better chance of experiencing sick-building syndrome; studies show that workers complain of symptoms most often in these buildings. The precise reasons arenít clear, but it likely has something to do with chemicals that are emitted from items like carpeting, furniture made from synthetic materials (like laminates), and upholstery. Another reason people in new and/or remodeled buildings may suffer more symptoms is a lack of ventilation: New and remodeled buildings tend to be very tightly sealed, with windows that may not open. This results in levels of chemicals building up in the indoor air.

How Do I Know if my Office Has Sick-Building Syndrome?

If your building is the problem, you may experience irritation of the eyes, nose, or throat; headache; coughing; fatigue; and an increase in asthma symptoms. Of course, these can all be symptoms of a brewing head cold or feveróitís not always easy to determine just why it is you're under the weather. But one good clue is whether the symptoms stop or aren't as intense when you're not in the building, and return when you're in the office.

Another clue is if coworkers are having the same symptoms. Symptoms may occur when the workers are anywhere in the building or they may be confined to one particular room, such as a conference or break room. Musty/moldy odors or visible water marks on walls or ceilings are also reliable indicators of a problem.

What Can I Do if I Think my Symptoms Are Due to Sick-Building Syndrome?

While thereís no one definitive test that can prove a building has a problem, if people are suffering, action is needed. Speak to your building manager to make sure that:

    Temperature and humidity are set to comfortable ranges.

    Heating and air conditioning systems are in good working order and are cleaned regularly.

    Water damage and leaks are fixed.

    Any damp material or insulation is removed.

    The ventilation system is providing enough outdoor-air inflow.

If your manager isnít receptive to your complaints, you have a right to request a Health Hazard Evaluation from NIOSH at cdc.gov/niosh/hhe/..