Sick Building Syndrome: How Your Work Might Be Making You Ill

A diagnosis of SBS is typically delayed until an unusual number of individuals who frequent a particular building all start displaying similar symptoms over a period of time. At that point, an investigation of the building itself as a causative factor may be in order. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that up to 30 percent of existing commercial and residential structures may be implicated in SBS symptoms. However, only time and careful investigation can narrow down the diagnosis to a sick building. Here is more information on sick building syndrome, its warning signs and symptoms and what types of treatments are available.

SBS Allergens 

Sick building syndrome symptoms may vary depending on the type of allergen present in the building. If you are pursuing your masters of public health you may be considering specializing in SBS for your career. If this is the case, you will be interested to learn that four major types of pollutants are now known to contribute to sick building syndrome.

  • Biological air pollutants. Biological air pollutants include mildew, mold, pollen, dust, pet dander, hair and other common allergens produced by people and/or animals and carried through the air. 
  • Heavy-metal air pollutants. Lead is probably the most famous heavy-metal air pollutant, and also the most heavily publicized to date. However, other equally dangerous heavy-metal air pollutants like mercury are often still in the paint or primer of older buildings and may pollute the air supply at toxic levels.
  • Volatile organic compound air pollutants. VOCs, as volatile organic compounds are commonly termed, can be released into the air through the presence of pesticides, preserving agents (like formaldehyde), cleaning chemicals (such as solvents and sprays) and other chemicals. Other more common VOCs include glues, fragrances, markers, printer ink and toner and even some types of markers. VOCs are more dangerous indoors because their concentrations are much higher when in an enclosed indoor space.
  • Major combustion air pollutants. Perhaps the best-known major combustion air pollutant is carbon monoxide. Some of these pollutants, such as carbon monoxide, can be lethal. Others, like sulfur dioxide and methylene chloride (often found in paint thinners), are simply irritating and toxic. 

SBS Symptoms

Symptoms of SBS can vary depending on which type of pollutant is present within the sick building. However, there is a range of symptoms that sufferers tend to exhibit, including some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Lethargy and fatigue
  • Dizziness and nausea
  • Trouble breathing and a tight feeling in the chest
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Skin rashes, irritation, dryness and other skin issues
  • Unexplained body aches and pains
  • Irritation in the eyes or throat
  • Trouble focusing or concentrating
  • Alterations to sense of taste or smell

SBS Treatment

Before treatment can begin, it is critical to identify what is causing the symptoms being displayed. This can often be a frustrating process for both patient and doctor. Because ultimately SBS is similar to any other type of allergic reaction, it is important to pinpoint the specific allergen(s). A general practitioner can help alleviate discomfort from SBS symptoms. A dermatologist can be very helpful in performing allergy testing to rule out food allergies or an underlying medical condition. Ultimately treatment requires removal from the sick building. 

Identifying a Sick Building

If you are concerned about a sick building at your workplace, contact your employer’s HSE (Health and Safety Executive) representative and ask them to investigate. Ask your employer to survey other employees to find out if your co-workers are also experiencing symptoms. The first step will always be to check the overall air quality and composition and do a thorough general cleaning to rule out easily fixable maintenance issues. From here, the investigation can proceed to determine the category of pollutant and design an appropriate strategy to clean and purify the air.

Sick building syndrome is a very real illness that affects workers all over the world today. If you believe you may be suffering from SBS, do not wait to report the issue and seek treatment.


About the Author: Karen Marsh learned about sick building syndrome after logging two months of sick time in one year. She then pursued her masters in public health and now works as an independent HSE contractor to evaluate “sick” buildings.