On many projects that I have worked on throughout the years, I have been asked to evaluate a building for “Sick Building Syndrome”. Now, what is this syndrome? Is the building somehow sick? Not exactly. According to the EPA, sick building syndrome (or SBS) describes “situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified. The complaints may be localized in a particular room or zone, or may be widespread throughout the building.”[note] https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2014-08/documents/sick_building_factsheet.pdf https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2014-08/documents/sick_building_factsheet.pdf [/note]
During the site assessments, the clients will complain of one or more different symptoms such as fatigue, nausea, throat irritation, headaches, trouble breathing or a host of other issues. SBS can take place in a workplace or residential property. For the sake of this blog, I will focus on residential properties. In the following paragraphs, I will show the types of questions that I ask the client to help me narrow down the source of the problem.
Do the symptoms go away when you leave the house?
This is a sure-fire sign of sick building syndrome. The length of time it takes for the symptoms to lessen can vary. Some of my clients reported that when they took an extended weekend getaway or a long vacation, the symptoms would go away. Other clients report that within an hour of leaving their home, they felt much better.
How long have you been living in the home?
We have also had a number of clients report that they started feeling ill shortly after moving into their property. Sometimes a client has been living in a property for a number of years and has felt perfectly fine until now. This could also be due to some concurrent illness or their immune system gradually deteriorating over time.
But other times the symptoms can be associated with a specific change in the home. This leads to the next question.
When did you first start feeling symptoms?
Another way of phrasing this could be “From the time everything was fine to the time that it wasn’t – what changed?” This could involve extensive remodeling like a new kitchen or bathroom, painting, staining, caulking, etc. Perhaps the windows and/or roof were recently replaced which made the home more airtight. Remodeling a home can involve a host of issues with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are off-gassing into the air and making people sick. If this is the case, a check of total volatile organic compounds levels can help determine if that is a possible cause of the symptoms.
Are the symptoms worse in the morning or in the evening?
This question can also help in figuring out the source of the problem. For instance, if a client’s symptoms appear to be worse in the morning, it could be an indication that the problem is in the bedroom where they are sleeping. Going through an extensive examination and possible testing in this room can provide critical clues.
On the other hand, if the symptoms are worse in the evening (ie after coming back from work) it may be an indication that the underlying cause is away from the property.
Are the symptoms worse in different seasons?
If the problems occur during times of more extreme weather, such as a hot summer or cold winter, the issue may be associated with the HVAC system and ventilation. I oftentimes ask a client if their systems are worse while the HVAC is running. Winter examples include condensation on cold walls and improper venting of furnaces. Summer examples include rainwater intrusion and condensation in crawl spaces
Moisture problems in the property?
Have you had any known leaks in the plumbing? Are you aware of any roof leaks or humidity issues in the attic? Have you had any flooding events in your basement or crawl space? Any one of these problems could be totaled up in a single word – “mold”! A mold problem can wreak havoc for people with hypersensitivities. A moisture problem doesn’t even have to be recent for there to be a mold problem. A past issue with dampness can mean elevated mold levels today.
By answering these questions, we improve our chances of solving the mystery of SBS. In these types of situations, a trained indoor air quality consultant can be an invaluable resource. As the old saying goes, “Knowledge is power”. By answering these questions, we take the necessary steps in having a healthy home.