Marilyn Lewis, MEd
Often people are unable to understand why they feel sick on a daily basis and why they develop symptoms that worsen over tim.
Often people are unable to understand why they feel sick on a daily basis and why they develop symptoms that worsen over time. If you or someone you know has been experiencing continual allergy-type reactions that doctors are unable to explain, the problems could be coming from indoor air pollution. If that is the case, it could be that these symptoms are being caused by a disease called sick building syndrome (SBS). What is Sick Building Syndrome? In 1983, The World Health Organization defined sick building syndrome as a disease caused by exposure to low levels of indoor air contaminants on a recurring basis. Sick building syndrome can affect all body systems. Unfortunately, most medical doctors lack knowledge about this serious, sometimes controversial, environmentally induced disease. The irony is that many people who have SBS continue to work or live inside the building that is the source of their symptoms, while their doctors are testing or treating them for other illnesses. It took three years before I was diagnosed with SBS. My doctor utilizes a sedimentation rate blood test&many doctors don't. When elevated, the sedimentation (sed) rate suggests the possibility of an infection, anemia, inflammation, rheumatoid arthritis, rheumatic fever, or one of several types of cancers. Each of the three years I worked in the modular classroom, my sed rate elevated and my symptoms worsened. The doctors suspected a hidden cancer. Four months after leaving my workplace, my sed rate dropped. Being away from the modular unit meant a marked improvement in my blood test results. It was the history of sed rate tests results that helped the doctors diagnosis my deteriorating health as sick building syndrome. What is a Sick Building? The origin of sick buildings began with the energy crisis in the 1970s. Shortages of gasoline and high heating costs triggered the need for sealed, airtight buildings that were energy efficient and cost effective. As a result, the amount of outside fresh air was reduced from 20 cubic feet (.57 cubic metres) per minute, per person, (a longstanding measure for indoor air odour control) to 5 cubic feet (.14 cubic metres) per minute per person. In 1976 the media publicized a mysterious disease that took the lives of 34 people and caused 147 people to become sick at The Bellevue Stafford Hotel in Philadelphia, which was hosting a legionnaires' convention. The illness, dubbed "legionnaires disease," remained a mystery until it was discovered that the source of the pneumonia-type symptoms came from a bacterium found in the water used to cool the air in the hotel's air-conditioning system. "Legionnaires disease" raised awareness of indoor air contamination as a real health hazard. Most people think of air pollution as an outdoor problem. However, indoor air often contains more contaminants than outdoor air. There is a significant body of published research documenting the serious and widespread health problems caused by indoor air pollution. To understand why some people get sick building syndrome, it is important to understand what causes a building to become sick. Indoor Air Contaminants Indoor air becomes contaminated for a variety of reasons. High levels of carbon dioxide are often found in sealed office buildings where many people are working. The effect of carbon dioxide can be tiredness, headaches, and loss of concentration. Buildings lacking proper amounts of fresh air usually contain airborne infectious agents such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, volatile organic compounds, reactive chemicals, allergens, and micro-organisms at levels that cause some people to experience SBS. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a class of carbon-based chemicals that evaporate at room temperature. Three VOCs that are commonly found in many products are formaldehyde, benzene, and phenols. Phenols, reactive chemicals that release noxious gasses into the air at low yet potentially harmful levels, are extremely hazardous to people who have developed sensitivity to them and may trigger life-threatening reactions in some people. Volatile Organic Compounds in Your Home and Office Formaldehyde: plywood, particleboard, foam insulation, carpets, fabrics, resins, glues, cigarettes Benzene: solvents, paints, lacquers, adhesives, and cosmetics Phenol: perfumes, hair sprays, dyes, soaps, plastics, waxes, cleaners, disinfectants, air fresheners, polishers, petroleum compounds, and mouthwashes Micro-organisms and allergens are other sources of indoor air pollution. These contaminants are released into the air through humidifiers, air conditioning systems, and ventilation ducts. Micro-organisms and allergens include: moulds, mould spores, dusts, dust mites, pollens, algae, insect parts, bacteria, viruses, and chemical additives as well as products used to clean these systems. Carpets also amass dusts and moulds in high-traffic areas. How it's Built Matters The way a building is constructed can lead to indoor air contamination. Tightly sealed portable, modular units that are often used as temporary classrooms usually have crawlspaces that are constructed without proper provisions for drainage. Portable rooms have been known to have serious moisture problems. Modular units that are not placed on a concrete base are at risk of leaking water into the crawlspaces, where moisture collects and creates a fertile environment for the growth of fungi and moulds. Some moulds reproduce by sending out invisible toxic spores. To allow for fresh air to be circulated in a sealed building, it must have a good heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system, one that's properly maintained at appropriate intervals. Buildings that lack adequate levels of fresh air, where the HVAC systems aren't being maintained, are at risk of becoming sick buildings. Do You Have One or More of These Unexplained Symptoms?