Sick Building Syndrome: How Stale Office Air Harms You

How Stale Office Air Harms You

Have you been worried that your office air quality might be getting you sick? These complaints, often called sick building syndrome, are common, particularly in newer, more energy-efficient buildings where fresh air is scarce.

While it’s easy to think that indoor air quality is better than outdoors, that isn’t always the case, which makes sense when you consider the concentration of pollutants in enclosed spaces and when there is a lower air exchange rate.

In this blog, we’ll discuss what sick building syndrome is and how it’s different from building-related diseases. Then, we’ll focus on what the leading causes are and how to prevent it.

What is Sick Building Syndrome?

Sick building syndrome is a condition where several regular building occupants have several nonspecific illness symptoms that do not have a clear identifiable cause. The symptoms are temporary, related to being in a particular building and resolve when the person is not in the building.

Common symptoms of sick building syndrome include:

  • Nausea
  • Irritation of the eyes, nose and throat
  • Headaches
  • Mental fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Skin irritation

What's the difference between sick building syndrome and building-related diseases?

While sick building syndrome has no identifiable cause, building-related illnesses have a cause for symptoms or diseases that the building occupants can identify. For example, building-related illness could include a cold spread among colleagues, allergies or asthma due to particles like dust or mold, or cancer caused by pesticides or asbestos.

4 Causes of Sick Building Syndrome

Poor office air quality is one of the major contributors to sick building syndrome, with the most common causes being inadequate ventilation as well as biological and chemical contaminants. Here are the 4 most causes of sick building syndrome to watch out for in your workplace.

#1 - Inadequate ventilation

Before the energy crisis in the 1970s, most buildings weren't sealed tightly, allowing air to be circulated more easily. Following the energy crisis, buildings were made more energy efficient by sealing areas where air could escape or enter the building. Because of this change, airflow in buildings decreased from approximately 15 cubic feet per minute to 5 cubic feet per minute.

#2 - Biological contaminants

Biological contaminants are often the result of excessive moisture or high humidity, which produce an ideal breeding ground. These contaminants are living organisms (or their byproducts), and they include:

  • Bacteria
  • Pollen
  • Mold
  • Dander
  • Mites
  • Dust
  • Cockroaches
  • Pollen
  • Viruses

Bird, vermin, and insect droppings also fall into the biological contaminant category. They accumulate just about anywhere, including ventilation ducts, carpeting, ceiling tiles, insulation, standing water, furniture fabric, humidifiers and drain pans.

#3 - Common chemical contaminants inside

Some sources are obvious, such as cleaning products and pesticides. These products release potentially dangerous chemicals, including Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). Other sources go by largely unnoticed even though they, too, emit VOCs.

Carpeting, adhesives, computers, photocopiers, heaters, manufactured wood products, lighting and paint emit toxic chemical compounds which all negatively affect your air quality.

#4 - Common chemical contaminants outside

Pollutants from outdoors can enter a building in many ways, including doors, windows, cracks and vents. Outdoor pesticides, smokestack emissions, agricultural and urban waste, forest fires and smog can all make their way into a building, affecting indoor air quality. Car exhausts, especially fumes from nearby garages, are also a significant source of contaminants.

How to Prevent Sick Building Syndrome

There are several things building owners and regular occupants can do to prevent sick building syndrome. Here is what we recommend to get started:

  • Improve air circulation: Maintain the HVAC system to ensure it functions properly and is not contaminated. Also, ensure air intakes aren't located where outdoor pollution from vehicles and manufacturing can decrease indoor air quality.
  • Ban smoking inside: If anyone at your company smokes, make sure they do it outside and far away from doorways and fresh air intake ducts.
  • Avoid excessive use of harmful chemicals: All chemicals should be stored appropriately and only used with proper ventilation.
  • Reduce exposure to VOCs: Use furniture with low contents of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and only paint with low-VOC paints.
  • Take care of office plants: Dying plants negatively impact indoor air quality, and overwatered plants can develop mold.
  • Store food properly: Always keep perishable food in the fridge and clean the fridge out frequently to prevent odors and mold. Also, dispose of garbage promptly to avoid biological contamination.
  • Keep eating areas clean: This helps to avoid attracting pests or causing mold to grow.
  • Take regular breaks outside: Encourage office workers to leave the building by eating lunch outdoors.

If you or your coworkers are experiencing health problems that may be related to sick building syndrome and poor air quality, work with your HR representative and building personnel to find the cause of the problem. Installing an air quality monitor can be a great first step in knowing your office’s air quality.

Monitor the Particulate Matter levels around the world with our free, real-time PurpleAir Map or join PurpleAir's mission to make air quality data accessible to everyone by investing in an air quality monitor for your home and office.

Together, we can be informed and make changes in our daily habits and the community to improve air quality.