The importance of adequate ventilation: Sick Building Syndrome

In Dave's Take, Heating & Cooling 101 by Allan WLeave a Comment



Do you or your co-workers commonly complain of symptoms such as



Eye irritation

Nose irritation

Throat irritation

Dry cough

Dry or itchy skin

Dizziness and nausea

Difficulty in concentrating


Sensitivity to odors

Do these symptoms generally alleviate as soon as they leave the building? While there certainly are other factors that can cause these symptoms, it could be something called “Sick Building Syndrome.”

According to the EPA:

“The term “sick building syndrome” (SBS) is used to describe situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that

appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified. The complaints may be localized in a particular room or zone, or may be widespread throughout the building. In contrast, the term “building related illness” (BRI) is used when symptoms of diagnosable illness are identified and can be attributed directly to airborne building contaminants.”


wall-450106_1280The phrase sick building can easily conjure up images of old, dilapidated or dingy buildings, but in fact sick building syndrome is alarmingly common in new or recently remodeled buildings.

A 1984 World Health Organization Committee report suggested that up to 30 percent of new and remodeled buildings worldwide may be the subject

of excessive complaints related to indoor air quality (IAQ). Often this condition is temporary, but some buildings have long-term problems. Frequently, problems result when a building is operated or maintained in a manner that is inconsistent with its original design or prescribed operating procedures. Sometimes indoor air problems are a result of poor building design or occupant activities.

Causes of sick building syndrome

Inadequate ventilation: In the early and mid 1900’s, building ventilation standards called for approximately 15 cubic feet per minute (cfm) of outside air for each building occupant, primarily to dilute and remove body odors (EWW!). As a result of the 1973 oil embargo, however, national energy conservation measures called for a reduction in the amount of outdoor air provided for ventilation to 5 cfm per occupant. In many cases these reduced outdoor air ventilation rates were found to be inadequate to maintain the health and comfort of building occupants. Inadequate ventilation, which may also occur if heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems do not effectively distribute air to people in the building, is thought to be an important factor in SBS.


Air ventilation is key to prevent such maladies such as sick building syndrome. Additionally the need for quality, well maintained filtration systems is important in any environment. Whether it’s regularly maintained pleated filters, media air cleaners or HEPA filtration, there are steps that can be taken to aid in the prevention of such symptoms.


Chemical contaminants:

The outdoor air that enters a building can be a source of indoor air pollution. For example, pollutants from motor vehicle exhausts; plumbing vents, and building exhausts (e.g., bathrooms and kitchens) can enter the building through poorly located air intake vents, windows, and other

openings. In addition, combustion products can enter a building from a nearby garage.


Biological contaminants:

Bacteria, molds, pollen, and viruses are types of biological contaminants.

These contaminants may breed in stagnant water that has accumulated in ducts, humidifiers and drain pans, or where water has collected on ceiling

tiles, carpeting, or insulation. Sometimes insects or bird droppings can be a source of biological contaminants. Physical symptoms related to

biological contamination include cough, chest tightness, fever, chills, muscle aches, and allergic responses such as mucous membrane irritation and upper respiratory congestion.


The Environmental Protection Agency has these tips to help keep the air in your workplace as fresh as possible:


  • Don’t block air vents or grilles.
  • If you must smoke, do it outside and far away from the fresh air intake ducts, and comply with your company’s smoking policy.
  • Take care of your office plants — dusty, dying plants don’t do anything for the air quality in your office, and over-watered plants can develop mold.
  • Get rid of garbage promptly to prevent odors and biological contamination.
  • Store food properly. Keep perishable food in the refrigerator, and clean the refrigerator out frequently to prevent odors and mold.
  • Keep eating areas clean to avoid attracting pests. (Cockroaches have been linked to respiratory problems — according to the EPA, certain proteins in cockroach droppings and saliva can cause allergic reactions or trigger asthma symptoms.)

No matter if it is at your home or your office, the proper operation and maintenance of your HVAC is crucial for not only general comfort, but preventing illnesses and other such maladies. Ensure your HVAC system is properly maintained at home and insist that it is a priority in the workplace as well.

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