Sick Building Syndrome Prevention Should be a Top Priority

Sick Building Syndrome is a relatively new health condition that is potentially caused by various indoor environmental dynamics. Inside an office building or commercial building, Sick Building Syndrome can be triggered by poor indoor air quality and even poor air circulation. And while causes aren’t always clear and understandable, suffice to say that many people suffer from SBS.

Today, more and more building owners are focused on sick building syndrome prevention, both for workers in the building and visitors or customers. The problem with SBS is that diagnosing can be difficult – there symptoms are wide-ranging and oftentimes the symptoms mimic other health conditions. If Sick Building Syndrome is suspected, this is reason enough to take action.

Sick Building Syndrome is unique amongst environmental illnesses

When the symptoms of SBS emerge, it’s incumbent on building managers to undertake sick building syndrome prevention, and to address the source and extent of the problem. With SBS, building occupants and visitors experience acute health symptoms when inside a building. While no specific illness can be diagnosed, the symptoms tend to dissipate when leaving the building.

In some cases, individual complaints might be localized in a specific portion of a building. In other cases, occupants may be affected throughout the entirety of a building. In every case, symptoms that arise can be both bothersome and worrisome. With SBS, occupants and visitors will complain about a variety of symptoms and/or discomfort including: 

  • headaches, dizziness, and nausea
  • irritation of the eye, nose, and throat
  • a dry cough
  • dry and/or itchy skin
  • difficulty in focus/concentration
  • fever, chills, and/or muscle aches

The causes of Sick Building Syndrome are wide and varied

Chemical Contamination

Chemical contamination can arise from such pollutants as vehicle exhaust, plumbing vents, and building exhaust. In more serious situations, chemical contaminants may even include radon and asbestos – both of which circulate because of poor building ventilation. There are also situations where Volatile Organic Compounds are in the air (adhesives, pesticides, and cleaning agents).

Biological Contaminants

Biological contaminants can prevail inside a building – everything from pollen, to fungus, to mold. In many cases, these contaminants breed in moist environments like humidifiers, heating ducts, and drainpipes. Insect contamination and bird droppings can also create biological debris that is unhealthy. Unfortunately, heating and air-conditioning systems can circulate the contamination.

Inadequate Ventilation

Today, with so many commercial buildings being airtight, air ventilation seems to have suffered. Inadequate ventilation can compromise the health and comfort of both occupants and visitors. And with heating and air conditioning going all year round, poor air ventilation can contribute to stagnant indoor air and the preponderance of airborne pollutants, contaminants, and chemicals.

How did it all start? 

Building trends of the 1970’s focused on energy conservation and design utilized features and components that would keep hot and cold air in an attempt to save expensive energy resources. The goal was to keep buildings airtight to control air leaks that increase energy consumption and  wear and tear on complex commercial HVAC systems. Triple pane windows, weather stripping, building wraps and extensive use of insulation were just some of the features implemented to keep commercial buildings airtight. Most modern commercial designs do not have windows that open which also severely restricts airflow causing a buildup of pollutants reducing air quality inside the building.

Indoor pollutants in commercial buildings can come from many sources. 

  • Wall paints, carpet fibers and furniture can off-gas toxic fumes continuously many years after installation. 
  • Office technology such as copiers reduce air quality by generating excessive amount of ozone. 
  • Air quality can also be greatly decreased by hidden mold growth occurring in high moisture and water damaged areas. 

These toxic pollutants can build up to dangerous levels because energy conservation building designs severely restrict airflow and air exchanges and are dependent on mechanical means to clean the air. Workers who suffer through ‘sick building syndrome’ are more likely to have mild to severe health problems and lower productivity. 

Case studies of sick building syndrome in Canada

Sick Building Syndrome can cause liability issues

Sick building syndrome symptoms should not be ignored as it could open businesses and building operators to liability if health issues arise. A Ministry of Natural Resources employee in New Brunswick successfully sued his employer (The Federal Government), the building designers, construction contractors and the building management company for damages when the effects of sick building syndrome affected the employee’s health and ability to continue working. Ensuring a safe and healthy workplace is an all-encompassing responsibility and all parties involved must take necessary steps to restore the health of the building. The courts have recognized the importance of health and safety in the workplace and have no issue placing legal responsibility and liability to those associated with the business and property. 

How a Manitoba hospital dealt with sick building sickness?

Any changes in the inside environment must be investigated and corrected immediately. Certain provinces have different statute of limitations as to when damages can be claimed. A hospital in Manitoba could not proceed with litigation against the building design consultant, contractors and subcontractors because the case was brought to court outside specific outlined provincially mandated time frames. Unfortunately, this case was related to mold formation in a personal care facility attached to the hospitable and it was determined that faulty designed allowed excess moisture to enter the building and causes mold to form reducing air quality. Being a medical facility made the air quality problems even more critical in nature. Commercial business should have the air checked frequently and be aware of the symptoms of sick building syndrome. Catching the problem early can prevent health and safety issues from becoming big expensive problems. 

Catholic School Board was taken to court claiming children were getting sick from bad air quality

Many school boards turn to portable classrooms to increase student capacity but these ‘temporary’ buildings are highly prone to Sick building Syndrome with very poor ventilation and many opportunities for moisture to enter allowing mold to develop, fester and grow. In Ontario, a Catholic School Board was taken to court in the early 2000’s with the claim that children were getting sick by being exposed to such bad quality air by excessive mold development in the portables. Lack of proper ventilation in the original design was cited as the portables inability to effectively dry itself out. Plaintiffs in that case also litigated against the school board, architects and contractors who worked on the school. 

Newmarket Courthouse shut down due to major health concerns

Where litigation is heard is not exempt from suffering from the negative effects of Sick Building Syndrome. The Newmarket Courthouse had to be shut down in 2000 because of major health concerns related to indoor pollutants and the designers of the building were named as defendants in the original court case. Later a $50 million class action lawsuit was launched adding the construction company, the mechanical engineers, the architects and the maintenance company as defendants. The Provincial Government felt that all parties involved in the construction and operation of the facility were responsible for maintaining a healthy a safe work environment for provincial employees. 

Building Materials that may lead to sick building syndrome

Decorative materials may be the culprit of your poor indoor air quality 

While proper air circulation one of the major components in preventing sick building syndrome, the other major source for low air quality comes from construction and decorative materials used inside. Low quality paint used on walls can emit toxic fumes for years after application. Varnishes and shellacs used on furniture and fixtures can off-gas noxious fumes for decades. Formaldehyde is another toxic chemical commonly used in carpets that can also slowly release hazardous  toxins into the local air. Restricted or poor air circulation in the building will allow these pollutants to build up to dangerous levels causing chronic and possibly severe health problems. 

Use paints with a lower VOC and natural materials that emit no harmful off-gases

Initial business set up or building renovations are the perfect opportunity to use products and materials that are more air quality friendly. Interior paints with a lower VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) rating should be used on all walls and painted surfaces. Using furniture made from natural materials that are neutrally finished will reduce or eliminate harmful toxic off-gassing. Carpets and flooring should also be constructed of naturally sourced materials to reduce indoor pollutants. Using air friendly materials inside the commercial space in conjunction with maintaining the building's HVAC system will prevent sick building syndrome and keep employees healthy and productive. 

Many construction materials are known for high levels of Volatile Organic Compounds

Construction and building materials use many different chemicals to make sure they are strong enough to handle the job. Things like flooring adhesives are used throughout a construction project and are notorious for high levels of VOCs that can off-gas for a very long time after application. VOCs are a toxic combination of chemicals that can easily turn into vapor which can be inhaled by humans. The health effects of VOCs vary from mild respiratory reactions to more serious organ malfunction and even the development of cancer depending on the source of the toxic vapors. The industry is aware of health concerns in regards to sick building syndrome and have been working to develop effective materials that are human and air friendly. 

Defendants in Sick Building Syndrome Trials: 

Sick Building Syndrome is a serious problem that can cause severe healthy related issues to those that work inside. Typically, when it comes to litigation, most parties involved in the building are held liable:

  • Architects and designers
  • Building engineers
  • Construction contractors and subcontractors
  • Manufacturers and suppliers of building materials
  • Property managers and building operators.

Sick Building Syndrome prevention is critical for a healthy building

For the benefit of occupants, customers, and visitors, building owners should be engaging in Sick Building Syndrome prevention as an ongoing effort. From air testing to air cleaning to mold testing to mold removal, these are all endeavors that should be managed by professionals.

InchbyInch Inspections does it all. As Certified Building Consultants, the professionals at Inch-by-Inch will address issues of indoor air pollution, mechanical ventilation, and mold infiltration. The idea, of course, is to source the cause and extent of problems in the indoor environment.

The team at Inch-by-Inch can also conduct a comprehensive building inspection to uncover the nature of a specific problem. This type of inspection can uncover relevant irregularities in the HVAC equipment, the ventilation system, and even issues related to structural air leakage.

With InchbyInch Inspections, building owners are also provided with pertinent post-inspection recommendations. Inch-by-Inch will offer various remedies that include maintenance, repair, and component replacement. Often, system flaws are discovered that may not be visible or obvious.

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