What You Need to Know About Sick Building Syndrome

Sick Building Syndrome Versus Building Related Illness

In contrast to sick building syndrome, occupants with building related illness (BRI) may complain of symptoms such as:
  • Cough
  • Chest tightness
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Muscle aches.
Unlike sick building syndrome, for people with building related illness, the symptoms can be clinically defined and have clearly identifiable causes. Complainants may require prolonged recovery times after leaving the building.
It is important to note that complaints may result from other causes. These may include:
  • An illness contracted outside the building
  • Acute sensitivity (for example, allergies)
  • Job-related stress or dissatisfaction
  • Other psychosocial factors.
Nevertheless, studies show that symptoms may be caused or exacerbated by indoor air quality (IAQ) problems.

What Causes It?

There are several possible causes of (or contributing factors to) sick building syndrome. These possible causes of sick building syndrome may include:
  • Inadequate ventilation
  • Chemical contaminants from indoor sources
  • Chemical contaminants from outdoor sources
  • Biological contaminants.
Inadequate Ventilation
In the early and mid-1900s, building ventilation standards called for approximately 15 cubic feet per minute (cfm) of outside air for each building occupant, primarily to dilute and remove body odors. As a result of the 1973 oil embargo, however, national energy conservation measures called for a reduction in the amount of outdoor air provided for ventilation to 5 cfm per occupant.
In many cases, these reduced outdoor air ventilation rates were found to be inadequate to maintain the health and comfort of building occupants. Inadequate ventilation, which may also occur if heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems do not effectively distribute air to people in the building, is thought to be an important factor in sick building syndrome. In an effort to achieve acceptable IAQ while minimizing energy consumption, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recently revised its ventilation standard to provide a minimum of 15 cfm of outdoor air per person (20 cfm per person in office spaces). Up to 60 cfm per person may be required in some spaces (such as smoking lounges), depending on the activities that normally occur in that space (see ASHRAE Standard 62-1989).
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