Sick Building Syndrome Explained

What is Sick Building Syndrome?

Sick Building Syndrome may sound an odd term to some people, yet it perfectly describes this particular health problem. It relates to a building that is sick or more specifically a building that contains certain things that are a health hazard to humans working or spending any serious time in them.

This may sound like new ideas that are a bit silly but BRI, (building-related illness), has been recognized as a serious health problem, for a long time. An example of this is Legionnaire’s Disease.

Learn how to avoid a building that can lead to illness in people

Learn how to avoid a building that can lead to illness in people

How Can a Building be Sick?

A sick building is one deemed to contain any substance that can cause humans to become unwell. In many instances people become unwell for no apparent reason and this is often blamed on some mysterious virus but in reality it could be the sick building syndrome, (SBS), stealthily gaining ground.

A building is deemed to be sick when people spending a certain amount of time in it experience symptoms of being unwell but where no cause can be determined. This is believed to be more common in buildings that have sealed windows, as there is no possibility for the air to be “changed”. The symptoms can be varied but usually occur a few hours after entering the building and disappear a short while after leaving. People can suffer different effects such as; a simple headache, tiredness, dizziness, problems concentrating, throat irritation or coughing, itchy skin and even nausea. Also included in this list is stress, but that relates more to the work environment rather than the building.

SBS is generally caused by poor quality air, and this in turn is caused by Volatile Organic Compounds, gases like carbon monoxide, (second hand smoke is one source of this), radon, bacteria, ozone, (from some office machinery), mould and other contaminants harmful to health. In the case of mould, only some varieties contain dangerous substances and even these are rarely found in such elevated quantities as to do damage, unless you have visible mould growths in the building in which case testing is not a bad idea.

Air conditioners and heating are was widely used and for some mysterious reason businesses, homes and hotels now seldom have any windows open, and if by mistake done fresh air does make its way into the room it is quickly stopped. Sealed windows are popular, especially in hotelsand while guests may not feel the effects after a short visit, the staff that live and work constantly in that environment are a different matter. Mechanical ventilation, and this includes air conditioning, is thought to add to this problem, so there really is no substitute for the old fashioned belief that fresh air makes you better.
The better insulated a building the greater risk of SBS as the same insulation put there to better your quality of time spent inside, seals the hazardous substances into the building with you.


VOC is a term that few people have heard but is something destined to be used more and more as time and so called “progress” continues and people become ever more health conscious.

VOC stands for Volatile Organic Compound and while the word organic seems to indicate something innocuous it is the word volatile you need to look at.
These little things are harmful chemical residues from many common jobs such as painting, (one of the foremost sources of VOCs), or cleaning. VOCs evaporate at low temperatures and the temperature of an average room is sufficient to cause these chemicals to vaporise - and this applies to both solids and liquids. Examples of common VOCs are:

  • Paint
  • Glue
  • Some cleaning products
  • Some beauty products and
  • Some office machinery

As these are all things any normal building, be it a home or place of business, will have been subject to at one time or another this means any building is at risk – if not properly “cleansed” by letting old air out and replacing it with clean air. Without sufficient ventilation these chemicals can build up and create ground-level ozone that remains undetected.

Waste issues in a building can lead to sickness if not dealt with

Waste issues in a buildings can lead to sickness if not dealt with

A considerable number of Volatile Organic Compounds are classed as hazardous air pollutants. The damage these can do ranges from breathing difficulties and changes in mood to more serious illnesses such as cancer, as well as harming materials and the environment.

In a closed environment the vapour can build up, linger and deposit a residue which causes bad air quality. Humidity or elevated temperatures, (and this does not mean a room needs to be hot, just slightly warmer than he average), can make this even more volatile and do more damage. The same product used outside tends to be diffused by the weather and harmful substances get carried away but inside a building this is not the case and as more and more buildings have sealed windows there is no possibility to swap the air and release these chemicals into the atmosphere.

A bad, unpleasant or strange odour in a room is often caused by some type of VOC and is something to be looked into. There are a number of simple tests available to check for VOCs in a building. These simply involve filling a jar and sending it to a lab for testing; but make sure the company is reputable, the results come in an easy to understand format and many different VOCs are tested for. If the tests are positive the room needs cleansed and how this is done depends on the level and type of chemical residue found. In some cases opening windows and letting fresh air in while the bad air is pushed out is enough.


Radon is a radioactive atomic gas and if this sounds like something you definitely do not have in your building – think again. It comes from decaying radium which is found in some rocks and may be the foundations for any number of buildings, even yours. It can also be present in stone and tile products used inside buildings and this is currently considered a serious health hazard if not kept under control by good ventilation. For unknown reasons testing of building sites and building products for the presence of radon is not very extensive so many slip by unnoticed.

Air Conditioning units

Air conditioning systems rely on filters to remove contamination from the air they circulate. Particle air filters will remove dust. HEPA and UPLA filters are high quality and will remove dust, germs & aerosols. It’s very important to have the filters changed on a regular basis. Filters will in time become blocked and ineffective.

typical air conditioning fan unit

typical air conditioning fan unit

air conditioning filter these must be changed on a regular basis

air conditioning filter these must be changed on a regular basis


Risk Factors for Sick Building Syndrome

  • Internal VOCs from paint, cleaning products, manufactured plastic, wood and furnishings
  • A new building until the small has worn off, (the small is usually VOC related)
  • Emissions from Photocopiers and printers
  • Emissions from heating, (e.g. carbon monoxide)
  • Second hand smoke
  • Exhaust fumes from an indoor car park or from the road outside
  • Bad ventilation
  • Bad recycled air
  • Not enough new air

New SBS Free Building

Sustainable building also referred to as green building or green construction should eliminate the problem at the source by using as much non-hazardous or VOC producing products as possible. In some cases the items used will apparently have some VOCs but only those that produce low levels of these compounds. These new buildings will also have better filtration and ventilation systems and who knows, we may even go back to windows that open!

Indoor air quality should be much greater in these new buildings as materials used not only do not contain as many VOCs, but they also do not need VOC producing products to be used in their maintenance.

This does not help people living or working in old buildings, but do not despair as these too are easily remedied. Formaldehyde is often talked about as being one of the main culprits of VOCs, so before buying new paint or nail polish remover read the label and buy a product that does not contain this.

Open windows and doors, even on a cold day, as this lets the bad air escape and new air enter and if you do any major work leave windows open until the smell has dispersed.

If in doubt about the health of your building, do a test and then get rid of whatever is causing the people in the building to become unwell.


Image credit: dvanzuijlekom, Alan Stanton and exfordy