Sick building syndrome

Insomnia and shift work

Sick building syndrome (SBS) describes a situation whereby people experience symptoms of ill health that seem to be linked to spending time in a building - but where no specific cause can be identified.

What are the symptoms?

Some of the symptoms associated with SBS include: headaches, eye, nose or throat irritation, skin irritation, coughs, dizziness, nausea and fatigue. The symptoms rapidly improve after leaving the building.

Although the cause is unknown, there are several common theories surrounding the syndrome. These include:
  • Chemical pollutants outside the building - these will vary according to the location of the building. However, the common theory is that 'bad air' is drawn into the building via vents and windows.
  • Chemical pollutants inside the building - upholstery, carpets and cleaning products can emit chemicals, which can be a cause of irritation.
  • Bacteria, pollen and mould - if these contaminants collect in drains or air-conditioning systems they can breed and spread causing a variety of health problems such as. allergies and coughs.
  • High or low humidity level - or changes in relative humidity in a building can trigger symptoms of ill health.
  • Poor ventilation - many office environments use air conditioning systems but ventilation is sometimes poor.
What can be done?

The predominant culprit in most buildings is thought to be the flow of air. If this can be improved then SBS symptoms may disappear. Specific pollutants should be identified and then removed or altered to minimize the effect.

If you suspect your place of work is making you ill try and keep a diary of your symptoms. Do you feel better when you leave the building? Are there any changes you can make to your work environment? These might include:
  • Opening windows or doors to improve airflow.
  • Altering the temperature in your office.
  • Minimising the use of perfumed detergents and air fresheners.
  • Finally, if you and your colleagues feel that further investigation or action is needed, you may need to consider meeting with the owner of the building and your local health department.