Are you feeling sick when you’re indoors? Do your symptoms vary depending on your location? Being in the indoor air quality industry we receive many calls from potential clients who fear that their indoor environment is making them ill. This blog post will discuss “sick building syndrome” and “building-related illness symptoms”.
Prior to the global energy crisis in the 1970s, many Americans did not consider the cost of heating and ventilating a building because it was so inexpensive. After some oil-producing countries placed an embargo on the United States, Americans became more aware of energy costs. This prompted buildings to be constructed more tightly to save on costs. Also, ventilation rates were reduced. It comes as little surprise that after these new building practices were enacted, occupants were experiencing health effects.
Sick Building Syndrome Vs. Building-Related Illness
World Health Organization. Indoor air pollutants: exposure and health effects; EURO Reports and Studies 78. WHO: Copenhagen WHO Regional Office for Europe, 1983. In 1982, the World Health Organization (WHO), began using the term sick building syndrome (SBS). WHO describes it as the following – “normally no obvious cause is evident . . . even after extensive investigations of the composition of the air and performance of the ventilation system, and of the building structure itself” 1. Nearly a decade later, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), defined SBS as “situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building” 2.
SBS is used to describe when the cause of health effects to occupants is unknown. Also, the affected occupants do not experience health effects when they are away from the building.
In contrast, a building-related illness (BRI) has a known cause attributed to indoor exposures that can be medically diagnosed. Another distinction is that SBS symptoms tend to abate when the occupant is away from the building whereas, with BRI, they do not necessarily abate when they are away from the building.
How to determine if your home is making you sick
When an occupant is feeling unwell, it is important to do some detective work to try to determine the cause. Questions we ask our clients include the following:
- Are there times of the day that you feel worse or better?
- Do you smell any odors?
- When did the symptoms begin?
- Have there been any renovations or construction recently?
- Any changes in routines?
- Have you visited a doctor? Have you received a diagnosis?
Even if you have not received a diagnosis, your home may still be contributing to your symptoms.
With so many potential indoor air quality contaminants, occupants can experience different health effects. Additionally, there are multiple sources for contaminants. There’s a pulmonary disease called Legionnaires Disease that comes from contaminated aerosolized water. There are carbon monoxide leaks that can cause headaches and can be fatal. There are allergens that can cause sneezing and shortness of breath. In short, the answer to the question “can my home make me sick” is yes. The tricky part is determining any building-related causes of the symptoms. Indoor Science can help determine underlying causes, especially when occupants can provide background information on the problems.
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- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Indoor Air Facts No. 4 (revised) Sick Building Syndrome; Air and Radiation (6609j), Office of Research and Development (MD-560; US EPA: February 1991. Spengler, J.D.; Sarnet, J.M.; McCarthy, J.F. Indoor Air Quality Handbook. McGraw-HIll: New York, 2001.