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Last edited 14 Dec 2020
Sick building syndrome
Sick building syndrome (SBS) is the term given to symptoms of acute health and/or comfort effects for which no specific cause can be found but that can be attributed to time spent in a particular building.
SBS differs from building related illness (BRI) because in the case of SBS, the specific cause is unknown, whereas BRI relates to allergic reactions or infections which can be directly attributed to being in the building.
While SBS is not limited to any particular type of building, it is most common in the workplace and is often found in buildings such as open-plan offices, schools, libraries and museums. The symptoms may be localised to a particular room or part of the buildings, or may be found in the whole of the building.
 Symptoms of sick building syndrome
Anyone can be susceptible to SBS. Sufferers may experience either a combination of symptoms, or one in isolation, and they may vary from day to day without apparent cause. Symptoms generally improve or disappear upon leaving the building, and different people in the same building may experience different types or levels of discomfort.
The most common symptoms of SBS may include:
- Headaches and dizziness.
- Aches and pains.
- Irritated, blocked or runny nose.
- Eye and throat irritation.
- Poor concentration.
- Shortness of breath or chest tightness.
- Skin irritation.
The largest category of sufferers is office workers in modern buildings with mechanical ventilation or air conditioning systems, without opening windows. There is a higher risk for workers who are employed in routine work using display screen equipment and women are more at risk than men.
 Causes of sick building syndrome
Since awareness of SBS developed in the 1970s, researchers have tried to pinpoint the precise causes, however, no one single cause has been identified. The most common risk factors believed to contribute to SBS include:
- Inadequate ventilation.
- Low humidity.
- Inadequate sound insulation
- High levels of noise created by piping or air-conditioning systems.
- Fluctuations in room temperature.
- Airborne particles such as dust, carpet fibres and fungal spores.
- Airborne chemical pollutants such as cleaning products, ozone from photocopiers and printers, carbon monoxide, asbestos and external fumes such as traffic exhaust.
- Poor lighting.
- Electrostatic charges.
- Poor standards of cleanliness.
- Inadequate display screen equipment, causing glare or flicker.
- Psychological factors such as stress or low staff morale.
 Dealing with SBS
Building and building services design are associated with many of the factors relating to sick building syndrome, and this can be difficult to address effectively post-construction, requiring expensive remedial works.
However, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has compiled recommendations for employers about how to investigate the possible causes of sick building syndrome: HSE – How to deal with sick building syndrome. Advice includes:
- Employee survey: This can determine the rate of symptom occurrence; identify any obvious causes and possible remedies that can be applied before the situation worsens. Surveys should also be carried out at later dates to ascertain whether the symptoms are persisting.
- Building cleanliness checks: Make sure the building is being kept to a good level of cleanliness, that cleaning materials are being used and stored correctly, and so on.
- Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) system checks: Check the condition and cleanliness of air filters, humidifiers, de-humidifiers and cooling towers. In office environments, a humidity level of 40-70% is recommended by HSE. Also check maintenance schedules and ensure they are being followed correctly.
Building services and internal environment:
- Air quality, including ventilation, outdoor air supply and air movement.
- Office equipment and furnishings.
- Maintenance of the building and building services systems.
- Cleaning operations, including office furnishings.
 Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
- Building design.
- Building pathology.
- Building related illness.
- Building use studies (BUS).
- Design quality.
- Ergonomics in construction.
- Health and safety consultant.
- Health effects of indoor air quality on children and young people.
- Human comfort in buildings.
- Indoor air quality.
- Indoor environmental quality.
- Locating ventilation inlets to reduce ingress of external pollutants into buildings: A new methodology IP 9 14.
- Noise nuisance.
- Preventing overheating.
- TG10 2016 At a glance, wellbeing.
- Thermal comfort.
- Wellbeing and creativity in workplace design - case studies.
- When hospital buildings aren’t healthy.
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