Sick Building Syndrome: The Investigation

A Word About Radon and Asbestos

Sick building syndrome is associated with acute or immediate health problems; radon and asbestos, on the other hand, cause long-term diseases which occur years after exposure, and, therefore, are not considered to be among the causes of sick building syndrome. This is not to say that the latter are not serious health risks; both should be included in any comprehensive evaluation of a building's IAQ.

Sick Building Syndrome and Building Investigation Procedures

The goal of a building investigation is to identify and solve indoor air quality complaints, such as sick building syndrome, in a way that prevents them from recurring and which avoids the creation of other problems. To achieve this goal, it is necessary for the investigator to:
  • Discover whether a complaint is actually related to indoor air quality
  • Identify the cause of the complaint
  • Determine the most appropriate corrective actions.
An indoor air quality investigation procedure is best characterized as a cycle of information gathering, hypothesis formation, and hypothesis testing. It generally begins with a walkthrough inspection of the problem area to provide information about the four basic factors that influence indoor air quality:
  • The occupants
  • The HVAC system
  • Possible pollutant pathways
  • Possible contaminant sources.
Preparation for a walkthrough should include:
  • Documenting easily obtainable information about the history of the building and of the complaints
  • Identifying known HVAC zones and complaint areas
  • Notifying occupants of the upcoming investigation
  • Identifying key individuals needed for information and access.
The walkthrough itself entails visual inspection of critical building areas and consultation with occupants and staff.
The initial walkthrough should allow the investigator to develop some possible explanations for sick building syndrome. At this point, the investigator may have sufficient information to formulate a hypothesis, test the hypothesis, and see if the problem is solved. If it is, steps should be taken to ensure that sick building syndrome does not recur. However, if insufficient information is obtained from the walkthrough to construct a hypothesis, or if initial tests fail to reveal the problem, the investigator should move on to collect additional information to allow formulation of additional hypotheses. The process of formulating hypotheses, testing them, and evaluating them continues until the problem is solved.
Although air sampling for contaminants might seem to be the logical response to occupant complaints, it seldom provides information about possible causes of sick building syndrome. While certain basic measurements (for example, temperature, relative humidity, CO2, and air movement) can provide a useful "snapshot" of current building conditions, sampling for specific pollutant concentrations is often not required to solve the problem, and can even be misleading.
Contaminant concentration levels rarely exceed existing standards and guidelines, even when occupants continue to report sick building syndrome complaints. Air sampling should not be undertaken until considerable information on the factors listed above has been collected, and any sampling strategy should be based on a comprehensive understanding of how the building operates and the nature of the complaints.
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