Signs, Symptoms and Prevention of Sick Building Syndrome

The sick building syndrome comprises of various nonspecific symptoms that occur in the occupants of a building. This feeling of ill health increases sickness absenteeism and causes a decrease in productivity of the workers. As this syndrome is increasingly becoming a major occupational hazard, the cause, management and prevention of this condition have been discussed in this article.

The sick building syndrome (SBS) is used to describe a situation in which the occupants of a building experience acute health- or comfort-related effects that seem to be linked directly to the time spent in the building. No specific illness or cause can be identified. The complainants may be localized in a particular room or zone or may be widespread throughout the building.

Signs and Symptoms:

Some symptoms include headache, dizziness, nausea, eye, nose or throat irritation, dry cough and dry or itching skin. The cause of the symptoms is not known. Most of the complainants report relief soon after leaving the building. Legionnaire’s disease is also known to occur. The symptoms can be clinically defined and have clearly identifiable causes.

The symptoms of SBS are more common in air-conditioned buildings than in naturally ventilated buildings and are more common in a public sector building than in a private sector building.


Chemical contaminants:

Here are some of the factors that may be primarily responsible for SBS. Contaminants from outside like pollutants from motor vehicle exhaust, plumbing vents and building exhausts can enter the building through poorly located air intake vents, windows and other openings. The most common contaminant of indoor air includes the volatile organic compounds, also known as VOC. The main sources of VOC are adhesives, upholstery, carpeting, copy machines, manufactured wood products, pesticides and cleaning agents.

Biological Contaminants:

Biological contamination cause fever, chills, cough, chest tightness, muscle aches and allergic reactions. Biological contaminants include pollen, bacteria, viruses, fungus and molds. Air-conditioning systems can recirculate pathogens and spread them throughout the building, for example Legionnaire’s disease.

In order to have an acceptable indoor air quality (IAQ) with a minimum energy consumption, The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recently revised ventilation standards to a minimum outdoor air flow rate of 15 cfm/person to avoid the problems related to inadequate ventilation. The standards are 20 cfm/person in office spaces and 60 cfm/person in smoking lounges.


There are ways to prevent SBS. Increase the ventilation rates and air distribution. Removal or modification of the pollutant source can be carried out by a routine maintenance of HVAC systems, replacing water-stained ceiling tiles and carpets, using stone, ceramic or hardwood flooring, proper water proofing, avoiding synthetic or treated upholstery fabrics, minimizing the use of electronic items and unplugging idle devices, venting contaminants to the outside, storing paints, solvents, pesticides and adhesives in close containers in well-ventilated areas and using these pollutant sources in periods of low or no occupancy. Air cleaning can also be a useful addition to control air pollution. 


Thank you for your research Mr. Joshi.

Joshi SM. The sick building syndrome. Indian J Occup Environ Med 2008;12:61-4

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