Sick building syndrome (SBS) is a medical condition where people in a building suffer from symptoms of illness or feel unwell for no apparent reason. The symptoms tend to increase in severity with the time people spend in the building, and improve over time or even disappear when people are away from the building. The main identifying observation is an increased incidence of complaints of symptoms such as headache, eye, nose, and throat irritation, fatigue, and dizziness and nausea. These symptoms appear to be linked to time spent in a building, though no specific illness or cause can be identified. SBS is also used interchangeably with "building-related symptoms", which orients the name of the condition around patients rather than a "sick" building. A 1984 World Health Organization (WHO) report suggested up to 30% of new and remodeled buildings worldwide may be subject of complaints related to poor indoor air quality.
Human exposure to bioaerosols has been documented to give rise to a variety of adverse health effects. Building occupants complain of symptoms such as sensory irritation of the eyes, nose, or throat; neurotoxic or general health problems; skin irritation; nonspecific hypersensitivity reactions; infectious diseases; and odor and taste sensations. Extrinsic allergic alveolitis has been associated with the presence of fungi and bacteria in the moist air of residential houses and commercial offices. A very large 2017 Swedish study correlated several inflammatory diseases of the respiration tract with objective evidence of damp-caused damage in homes.
It has been suggested that sick building syndrome could be caused by inadequate ventilation, deteriorating fiberglass duct liners, chemical contaminants from indoor or outdoor sources, and biological contaminants, air recycled using fan coils, traffic noise, poor lighting, and buildings located in a polluted urban area. Many volatile organic compounds, which are considered chemical contaminants, can cause acute effects on the occupants of a building. "Bacteria, molds, pollen, and viruses are types of biological contaminants" and can all cause SBS. In addition, pollution from outdoors, such as motor vehicle exhaust, can contribute to SBS. Adult SBS symptoms were associated with a history of allergic rhinitis, eczema and asthma.
ASHRAE has recognized that polluted urban air, designated within the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)'s air quality ratings as unacceptable requires the installation of treatment such as filtration for which the HVAC practitioners generally apply carbon-impregnated filters and their like.
One study looked at commercial buildings and their employees, comparing some environmental factors suspected of inducing SBS to a self-reported survey of the occupants, finding that the measured psycho-social circumstances appeared more influential than the tested environmental factors. Limitations of the study include that it only measured the indoor environment of commercial buildings, which have different building codes than residential buildings, and that the assessment of building environment was based on layman observation of a limited number of factors.
Greater effects were found with features of the psychosocial work environment including high job demands and low support. The report concluded that the physical environment of office buildings appears to be less important than features of the psychosocial work environment in explaining differences in the prevalence of symptoms. However, there is still a relationship between sick building syndrome and symptoms of workers regardless of workplace stress.
Specific work-related stressors are related with specific SBS symptoms. Workload and work conflict are significantly associated with general symptoms (headache, abnormal tiredness, sensation of cold or nausea). While crowded workspaces and low work satisfaction are associated with upper respiratory symptoms.
Milton et al. determined the cost of sick leave specific for one business was an estimated $480 per employee, and about five days of sick leave per year could be attributed to low ventilation rates. When comparing low ventilation rate areas of the building to higher ventilation rate areas, the relative risk of short-term sick leave was 1.53 times greater in the low ventilation areas.
While sick building syndrome (SBS) encompasses a multitude of non-specific symptoms, building-related illness (BRI) comprises specific, diagnosable symptoms caused by certain agents (chemicals, bacteria, fungi, etc.). These can typically be identified, measured, and quantified. There are usually 4 causal agents in BRI; 1.) Immunologic, 2.) Infectious, 3.) toxic, and 4.) irritant. For instance, Legionnaire's disease, usually caused by Legionella pneumophila, involves a specific organism which could be ascertained through clinical findings as the source of contamination within a building. SBS does not have any known cure; alleviation consists of removing the affected person from the building associated with non-specific symptoms. BRI, on the other hand, utilizes treatment appropriate for the contaminant identified within the building (e.g., antibiotics for Legionnaire's disease). In most cases, simply improving the indoor air quality (IAQ) of a particular building will attenuate, or even eliminate, the acute symptoms of SBS, while removal of the source contaminant would prove more effective for a specific illness, as in the case of BRI. Building-Related Illness is vital to the overall understanding of Sick Building Syndrome because BRI illustrates a causal path to infection, theoretically. Office BRI may more likely than not be explained by three events: ÓWide range in the threshold of response in any population (susceptibility), a spectrum of response to any given agent, or variability in exposure within large office buildings." Isolating any one of the three aspects of office BRI can be a great challenge, which is why those who find themselves with BRI should take three steps, history, examinations, and interventions. History describes the action of continually monitoring and recording the health of workers experiencing BRI, as well as obtaining records of previous building alterations or related activity. Examinations go hand in hand with monitoring employee health. This step is done by physically examining the entire workspace and evaluating possible threats to health status among employees. Interventions follow accordingly based off the results of the Examination and History report.
A 2001 study published in the Journal Indoor Air 2001 gathered 1464 office-working participants to increase the scientific understanding of gender differences under the Sick Building Syndrome phenomenon. Using questionnaires, ergonomic investigations, building evaluations, as well as physical, biological, and chemical variables, the investigators obtained results that compare with past studies of SBS and gender. The study team found that across most test variables, prevalence rates were different in most areas, but there was also a deep stratification of working conditions between genders as well. For example, men’s workplace tend to be significantly larger and have all around better job characteristics. Secondly, there was a noticeable difference in reporting rates, finding that women have higher rates of reporting roughly 20% higher than men. This information was similar to that found in previous studies, indicating a potential difference in willingness to report.
In the late 1970s, it was noted that nonspecific symptoms were reported by tenants in newly constructed homes, offices, and nurseries. In media it was called "office illness". The term "Sick Building Syndrome" was coined by the WHO in 1986, when they also estimated that 10-30% of newly built office buildings in the West had indoor air problems. Early Danish and British studies reported symptoms.
Sick building syndrome made a rapid journey from media to courtroom where professional engineers and architects became named defendants and were represented by their respective professional practice insurers. Proceedings invariably relied on expert witnesses, medical and technical experts along with building managers, contractors and manufacturers of finishes and furnishings, testifying as to cause and effect. Most of these actions resulted in sealed settlement agreements, none of these being dramatic. The insurers needed a defense based upon Standards of Professional Practice to meet a court decision that declared´that in a modern, essentially sealed building, the HVAC systems must produce breathing air for suitable human consumption. ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers, currently with over 50,000 international members) undertook the task of codifying its IAQ (Indoor Air Quality) standard.