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How Greener Buildings Can Reduce Sick Building Syndrome

Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By maitree summat



Back in 1976, the world first discovered sick building syndrome (SBS). The bacterium, Legionella pneumophila, had been found at the American Legion Convention in Philadelphia. Until that point, scientists did not believe that the amount of time spent in a building could cause acute health effects or discomfort among occupants.

A common misconception about SBS, though, is that it only arises from older buildings. According to the World Health Organization, up to 30% of new and remodeled buildings worldwide are potential carriers of SBS. Today, many organizations have led a green building movement designed to help combat SBS. First, however, it is crucial to describe what SBS is and the factors that cause it.

What Is SBS?

Sick building syndrome is when a building’s occupants experience negative health effects when they spend time in that building. The most common symptoms of SBS include headaches, coughing, sleepiness, sore throat, dry eyes, dizziness and itchy skin.

Workers who spend eight hours a day in buildings that are not adequately maintained often report such symptoms. SBS symptoms commonly appear when workers return to the office after an extended break. To be able to combat sick building syndrome, it is vital to identify the factors that cause it.

Factors That Contribute to SBS

There are several factors that can contribute to SBS, such as the following.

1. Poor Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)

Poor indoor air quality (IAQ) is a major contributing factor to SBS. Indoor air quality refers to the standard of the conditioned air that circulates throughout buildings, and indoor air is the air we breathe throughout most of our lives. The EPA estimates that Americans, on average, spend as much as 90 percent of their time indoors.

Inadequate ventilation can lower the IAQ of a building and lead to SBS. Buildings that have inadequate HVAC systems may not distribute air effectively to building occupants. Office buildings should provide a range of between 15 and 60 cfm of outdoor air per person to properly ventilate the space and maintain a comfortable environment for workers. This level of ventilation combats the buildup of carbon dioxide, which results from building occupants.

2. Chemical Contaminants From Inside the Building

Even if ventilation systems are cycling the recommended amount of air to building occupants, indoor air pollution may still be contributing to SBS. VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, can cause acute health effects in those exposed to such chemicals regularly. Many everyday office items release VOCs, such as formaldehyde, through a process known as off-gassing. These office items include:

  • Copy machines (toner)
  • Cleaning products
  • Carpeting
  • Manufactured wood products

3. Outside Pollution

Along with inside sources of pollution, many harmful outside sources can impact the air quality of a building. If air intake vents are not placed in the correct location, outdoor pollutants such as exhaust can permeate throughout the building. Windows that are not properly sealed can also be entrance points for such harmful sources of pollution.

One incredibly harmful source of outside pollution is silica. Silica is a common mineral found in the earth’s crust. However, when it is pulverized, its particles become 100 times finer than a grain of sand. Respirable crystalline silica is created through activities such as construction and masonry. This airborne form of silica is toxic to humans and can cause silicosis, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and kidney disease.

If offices or homes are located next to construction sites, such dangerous particles could diffuse through the building through air intake vents or unsealed windows. To protect building occupants from outside sources of pollution, routine checks should be completed to ensure the building is properly sealed, and HVAC systems are maintained.

Negative Impact of SBS on the Office Environment

Sick building syndrome has the potential to lead to severe monetary losses for companies. Workers experiencing symptoms of SBS have been proven to be less productive and have higher rates of absenteeism than healthy employees.

Studies have shown that productivity losses of two percent result from the presence of such symptoms. This loss of productivity equates to an annual loss of around $60 billion per year. Higher health-care insurance costs can also be attributed to SBS. To prevent injuries from SBS, intelligent businesses have taken a green approach both to building and renovating their facilities.

Ways to Make Your Building Greener

The green building movement has offered a path forward for companies to prevent their employees from experiencing SBS symptoms. Several different green measures should be employed to ensure a building’s condition does not negatively impact the health of occupants. Here are just a few ways you can make your building greener.

1. Increase Ventilation Rates

Increasing ventilation rates is one approach to improving the work environment, and installing operable windows is one way to accomplish this. Operable windows allow occupants to open windows so that outside air can be filtered within the building. To save energy, operable windows can be fitted with a switch to ensure HVAC systems turn off in that specific zone so as not to waste energy when the window is open. If operable windows are not integrated into the HVAC system, energy usage can rise as much as 30 percent. Increasing ventilation rates also helps to prevent carbon dioxide buildup.

If you’re worried about the cost of extra ventilation methods, studies have shown that revenue produced by higher productivity can offset the costs associated with increased ventilation.

2. Use Low-VOC Emitting Materials

VOCs are a leading cause of SBS. Companies must make a concerted effort to avoid artificial building materials that emit high levels of VOCs. Using more sustainable products, such as green cleaners, helps to ensure that IAQ remains high. Although the initial cost of low-VOC items may be higher, it has been shown that gains achieved from creating a more comfortable work environment offset these costs.

3. Incorporate Interior Landscaping

A simple yet effective approach to improving conditions inside the building is to grow plants. Plants can improve IAQ levels and filter out carbon dioxide. Additionally, plants such as dracaena, help remove VOCs from the air. Interior landscaping can also reduce stress among employees.

4. Become LEED Certified

A certification known as Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) was created to help organizations implement impactful green building solutions. The U.S. Green Building Council sponsors the LEED Certification and offers resources for companies on how to construct green buildings.

Scorecards are also provided to companies to grade their progress on meeting LEED standards.  Different grades are issued based on a company’s selected methods. An accreditation from LEED signals that companies are taking a stand to work toward a more sustainable future.

Go Green and Help Your Employees Thrive

By employing green building strategies, companies can help mitigate the costs associated with sick building syndrome. Additionally, when you put these green methods to use in your building, you can create a healthy place for your employees to work and thrive.

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