Sick building disease, also sometimes called environmental illness or building-related illnesses, is a condition developed by people who have come into a (usually unknown) biological, chemical, or physical agent in a building.

This term was first introduced in the 1980s, and while not completely accepted by the medical community, is a documented phenomenon that affects hundreds of thousands of people.

Symptoms of Sick Building Syndrome

Sick building syndrome is usually classified by a group of occupants of the same building have similar symptoms that cannot be explained by another illness. One of the features of sick building syndrome, and what makes it so controversial, is that the cause of the symptoms is not identified. This sets it apart from a building-related disease in one way. Building-related diseases have known causes. Sick building syndromes do not. Some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Irritated eyes, throat, and nose
  • Fatigue
  • Mental confusion
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Dizziness
  • Irritated skin

When more than one occupant of a building (whether a residential or commercial building) present with the same symptoms, it is often attributed to coming in contact with an unknown substance that might be a part of the building or, more often, has infiltrated that building’s air system.

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History of Sick Building Syndrome

While the term did become popular in the 1980s, it has actually been around since the early 70s. During this time, building began to become more enclosed and economical, as the energy crisis pushed for more and more energy efficient buildings.

In order to prevent energy loss, companies began to seal off their buildings. The decreased air turnover ensured that the air inside the building became stale and the occupants of those buildings started to come into higher contact with a higher concentration of the chemicals used in paint, building materials, lighting, and computers.

The Cause of Sick Building Syndrome

The exact cause of this syndrome is not known, but the most common culprit is inadequate ventilation. The environmental contaminants that enter the building through the HVAC system and that are outgassed from the materials in the building actually build up in the space, because there is not enough movement in the air to dilute those contaminants.

Sick building syndrome is more common in those who already have respiratory issues like asthma and COPD, as well as those who have naturally lower tolerances to the types of chemicals and contaminants that might be in a building. That said, just about anyone will have a negative reaction to black mold, formaldehyde, constant paint odor, radon, or pollenating house plants when they are in an enclosed space. Some doctors even believe that depression and anxiety play a significant role in the development of the syndrome.

Because not everyone who spends time in the building will develop this syndrome, causing some opponents to the classification of this syndrome to believe that it does not exist. Others argue that there is no need for this classification because, in reality, there is a cause, and once it is identified, it is no longer sick building syndrome, but a reaction to a certain biologic or chemical in the building.

Risk Factors for Sick Building Syndrome

There are a number of factors that make an individual at a higher risk for sick building syndrome, including:

  • Spending a significant amount of time in the building, whether it is living in the building or working in the building
  • A heightened sensitivity to environmental contaminants, including allergies or respiratory issues
  • A strong sense of smell
  • Depression
  • Female
  • Anxiety

While many believe that these risk factors actually point to other conditions, in situations where there is little, if any evidence of an actual cause for the symptoms that a person is experiencing, sick building syndrome is still a possibility.

Treatment for Sick Building Syndrome

Because there is still some controversy surrounding sick building syndrome, there are no standardized treatment methods for this condition. That said, some doctors will prescribe a number of remedies that are designed to help the patient manage the symptoms that they are experiencing. These might include the prescription of antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications, or medication for mitigating headaches and nausea.

In general, the most reliable treatment is to remove the patient from the offending building. If they believe that there is something in the building that is actually making them sick, it is usually a good idea to leave that building. If the cause of the syndrome can be narrowed down, to a specific smell or room, the individual should avoid that room and smell. Whenever possible, rooms should be ventilated. This includes opening windows or installing and maintaining an efficient HVAC system that ensure that the air in the building is well-cycled.

We’ve all likely experienced the mental fatigue and headaches that occur when you have been inside, in stuff air for too long. Making sure the rooms of a building get as much fresh air as possible can help to treat and prevent sick building syndrome, no matter its cause. In buildings where opening windows and letting rooms air out is not always an option, HVAC systems should be employed to better handle the air and make sure that it is always as fresh as possible.

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