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Sick Building Syndrome, It Is Not Just in Your Head!

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| 2018 Jan 18 |
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Sick Building Syndrome, It Is Not Just in Your Head!

Student : Aya Al-Hajaj
University : McGill

On the average, people spend most of their day either at home or at work, therefore it is important for both those environments to be safe and healthy for us to function better and be more productive. Setting all psychological and stress related factors aside, sometimes people feel physically sick whenever they are at home or at work and relate that discomfort to some malfunction in the building they are staying at. So if you ever felt acute health problems, discomfort or illness and wondered why it intensifies the longer you stay inside a specific building, it is most probably because you have fell victim to the infamous Sick Building Syndrome. This article intends to explain the Sick Building Syndrome, highlighting the symptoms, effects and causes, as well as some solutions to this problem.

First of all, based on a research article entitled Indoor Air Facts No. 4, published by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the term “sick building syndrome” (SBS), reflects the situation in which occupants of a building experience health problems that appear to be linked to the time spent in that building, without having a specific known illness or cause. This discomfort can either be narrowed down to one specific room or spread out throughout the entire building. The symptoms that a person experiences when they have SBS, can consist of, but are not limited to nausea, headaches, watery eyes and nose, irritated throat, irritated skin, sensitivity to odor, dizziness, coughing, sneezing and difficulty concentrating.

Second of all, SBS is majorly generated because of poor indoor air quality (IAQ), which results due to improper heating or ventilation systems, as well as contamination. Improper heating systems cause houses to be too cold or too hot, whereas improper ventilation systems cause levels of carbon dioxide to increase and those of oxygen to decrease in each room. On the other hand, with regards to air pollution, contaminants can be categorized into indoor chemical contaminants, outdoor chemical contaminants as well as biological contaminants. When researching indoor chemical contaminants, many sources of contamination are found to be very common among different buildings; for example, building occupants can cause air contamination by smoking inside the building. However, in the case where many people are living in a small space, contamination can simply be generated by the production of excessive amounts of carbon dioxide. Other types of air contamination are the ones that are caused by building materials such as dust and fiberglass, as well as the ones generated by toxic volatile organic compounds emitted from pesticides and cleaning chemicals. Additionally, there is the contamination caused by gases emitted from certain paints and carpets.

As for outdoor chemical contaminants, a simple example would be the proximity of the building from a factory. In most cases however, it has been found that poorly located air intake vents permit the entrance of toxic gases and combustion products into the building, therefore affecting the quality of the air inside the building.

In addition to chemical contaminants, biological and microbial contaminants negatively affect the quality of indoor air quality as well. For example, fungi, mould and bacteria can fester due to high humidity levels or inadequate temperature levels, resulting in very unhealthy environments. Another major cause for indoor air quality contamination is dust mites, which are parasites that appear to cause asthma and allergic reactions to many building inhabitants.

Third of all, to handle this problem, simply taking over the counter allergy pills (eg: Benadryl) is not enough, more drastic measures should be taken to ensure the maintenance of healthy indoor air quality, such as:
• The removal of the pollutant source
• The increase of ventilation rates
• Moisture control
• Air duct cleaning

Starting with the removal of the pollutant source, the concept consists of the removal of whatever Microbial or chemical contaminant that is causing poor indoor air quality. For example, many certified companies offer mould removal services where they would get rid of the bacteria, mould, or mildew from its original source rather than simply bleaching it and brushing it away. However, if the pollutant source is a specific object such as fiber glass, furniture, carpets or specific types of paint that emit off- gases, then it is advised to get rid of the said glass or furniture that is causing the problem and replace it with a new one.

Moving onto the next feasible solution; the increase of ventilation rates in a room can be attained by opening the windows and refreshing the air in the room a couple of times per day or by installing a trickle ventilation system, which is a 10-inch high screen with extra filters that can be attached to most windows, allowing the entrance of fresh clean air. Other suggestions for better ventilation, consist of the adjustment of dampers in air handling systems or even the addition of economizers to existing air conditioning systems.

Moreover, as mentioned earlier in this article, moist and humidity encourage the growth of microbials such as mould, bacteria, and mildew, therefore moisture control is essential to ensure the conservation of good indoor air quality. Moisture control can be done by preventing water intrusion into the building, especially in below grade areas such as basements or cold storage rooms. To do so, runny faucets, clogged drains and rusty old pipes should be checked, cleaned or replaced to reduce the risk of leaks, especially in bathrooms and kitchens.

As for the last suggested solution in this article, it consists of air duct cleaning. Air ducts are the pathways for heated or cooled air to travel throughout a home. Therefore, a professional air duct cleaner would remove oil, dust, dirt, mold, slime, dead bugs, as well as other contaminants from the air duct.

To conclude, it is important to have new homes professionally inspected for their air quality before settling in, because as shown above, poor air quality can have serious health issues that can cause persistent discomfort. After being assured of the quality of the new environment you wish to live in, it becomes essential to keep this habitat healthy by cleaning it regularly, ventilating it, allowing sunshine into each room daily and finally by doing regular checkups and maintenance to prevent leaks and moisture.

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