Environmental Law

Sick Building Syndrome: When a Place Makes You Sick

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Everyone gets sick, and most of the time, it's the common cold or a stomach bug slowing us down. If your symptoms don't start to clear up in several days, the doctor's office is the next step, but the diagnosis isn't always quick and obvious. Not having answers is frustrating. It's natural to ask whether or not something in your environment - your home or your office - is behind your illness.

Sick building syndrome (SBS) and building related illness (BRI) describe health conditions related to or caused by time spent in a building. Sometimes good health requires keen detective work, so know the basics about SBS and BRI.

Defining SBS and BRI

Both SBS and BRI start with looking at indoor air quality (IAQ). Ventilation plays a major role in IAQ. Newer buildings generally have less ventilation than older ones. The 1970s energy crisis was met with conservation efforts, and the ventilation standard went from at rate of 15 cubic feet per minute (CFM) down to 5. Modern air-tight buildings set a stage for getting and feeling sick.

Sick Building Syndrome

SBS describes the group of symptoms a person suffers that appear connected to time spent in a particular building. There's no diagnosis of a specific illness, and an exact cause can't be found. Signs of SBS include:

  • Acute symptoms while in a building, with relief upon leaving
  • Headaches, eye, nose and throat irritation, nausea, fatigue, itchy skin, coughing, lack of concentration
  • No identifiable cause of symptoms or a diagnosis

Building Related Illness

A BRI, in contrast to an SBS, is when you have a diagnosed illness traced back to a contaminant in a building. Signs of BRI include:

  • Cough, chest tightness, fevers, chills and muscle aches
  • Recovery may take considerable time, even after you leave a building
  • You have a diagnosed illness and the cause is identifiable

Bacterial infections are good examples of building related illnesses. Legionnaires' disease, or legionella pneumophila is named for the pneumonia that struck almost 200 American Legion members at a convention in Philadelphia in 1976. This bacteria also causes Pontiac fever. The building link? The bacteria thrives in places such as the warm water in building cooling towers.

SBS and BRI Causes

Ventilation is a major cause for conditions leading to SBS and BRI, and may be a factor adding to building problems caused by:

  • Chemical contamination. Chemicals cause indoor air pollution, and sources come from inside and outside a building. Inside sources include building materials and chemicals used in a building, such as cleaning agents and pesticides. Outside sources, such as vehicle fumes, enter from attached garages, window and door openings, and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. All are sources for volatile organic compounds (VOCs are gases coming from certain solids or liquids) that can have a negative effect on human health
  • Biological contamination. These include bacteria, viruses, molds and pollens. HVAC system problems can promote biological contaminants to a level where human health is harmed

These factors may work in combination, and pinpointing the source of a building's problems and its occupants' health concerns can be a challenge. Sometimes no clear answer is found.

Action for Building Owners and Occupants

Both owners and occupants should be concerned about building conditions and the effects on human health. Building owners should:

  • Perform routine building maintenance, with emphasis on HVAC systems, to maintain optimal IAQ
  • Be aware of VOC sources, such as remodeling and construction materials, and allow rooms to air out before use
  • Make sure there's adequate ventilation
  • Raise awareness about good IAQ and ban actions such as smoking, that decrease IAQ

Occupants of a building, whether it's a home, work place or office, or school should:

  • Work with their doctors to reach an accurate diagnosis, and find out if building conditions and IAQ truly have links to health problems
  • Notify employers or school administrators of possible IAQ issues, and possible SBS or BRI so they can investigate and fix underlying problems
  • At home, inspect HVAC systems and structures for contamination sources and make needed repairs

When the problem may be your office or work place, you can file a complaint with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), or a related state agency. OSHA may conduct a building investigation to find the source of IAQ problems and the solution.

It's easy to take good air quality and good health for granted, until there's a problem. It may take some detective work to find causes and solutions, so keep SBS and BRI in mind if you ever face a health mystery.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Do employers or office building owners have a duty to fix air quality issues if they make my allergies worse but don't affect people with normal health?
  • Is there a warranty claim against my home HVAC equipment manufacturer if it causes SBS or BRI in my house?
  • What kind of legal help can I get if I have health problems and losses due to SBS? Is it hard to prove?
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