Sick Building Syndrome: An Informative Primer



There is a certain unshakeable staleness to the iconic office high-rises of the 70's. Perhaps it is their strict geometrical symmetry, paired with their drab monochromatism -- as if to blend into the sidewalks from which they rise -- that gives them some semblance to functionless pillars of stone rather than the highly efficient places of work they are intended for. Lost somewhere in the void between the optimistic architectural trends characterizing the 30's and 40's and the experimental expressionism of contemporary building, the Brutalist architectural movement of the 70's responsible for these buildings endorsed an aesthetic ruggedness characterized by iterations of modular elements, a vastly concrete composition, and a lack of ornamentation in favor of pure functionality.

This sweeping trend in design was equally financially motivated. Various oil embargoes in the same decade put enormous pressure on building designers to plan more energy efficient structures, which often involved making them near airtight in an effort to maximize energy efficiency. Ventilation standards were likewise altered and minimized to 5 cfm/person, which, in combination with faulty and often malfunctioning heating and air-conditioning systems, created something like a sauna saturated with volatile organic compounds (VOC) off-gassed from building materials (Stolwijk, 1991). These chemicals, many of which are commonplace in paint and insulation, easily convert to toxic vapors which can quickly accumulate within a building lacking proper aeration.

While VOCs in themselves are quite caustic, there are a myriad of other factors that can contribute to what the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1986 first defined as Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) after an uptick in work related illnesses exhibited amongst office workers. From an architectural standpoint, the cage-like design of many commercial buildings built in the 1970s prevent or severely limit natural lighting. Additionally, these structures are notoriously hard to service, making the buildup of harmful mold and airborne carcinogens more likely.

Dangerous amounts of heavy metals are another risk factor that must be considered when evaluating the viability of a workplace. While much has been done in the last decade to phase out harmful building materials, structures that have not been updated prior to the 1990s are likely to contain mercury and lead, both of which were added to industrial paint to prevent the buildup of toxic mold.

Ironically too, many of the very products used to clean and sanitize office environments themselves offgas VOCs. Diethyl phthalate, toluene, acetone, and hexane -- found in common stain removers, sealants, adhesives, and aerosols -- have all been linked to neurological and central nervous system issues (Joshi, 2008). The excess of crude electronics custom to corporate offices, such as computers, printers, televisions, and microwaves can also play a factor. Devices like these emit a slow trickle of electromagnetic radiation which, overtime, ionizes the already polluted air. In combination with powerful magnetic fields created by improper, ungrounded wiring, these factors subject employees to a much higher risk of cancer and various other degenerative diseases.

The simplest cure for Sick Building Syndrome is prevention, which begins with a recognition of the condition’s symptoms. Acute signs of Sick Building Syndrome as outlined by the WHO include but are not limited to headache, dizziness, nausea, eye, nose, or throat irritation, and fatigue, all of which lead to a sharp reduction in work capacity and a corollary spike in absenteeism. The relative mildness and breadth of these stack of symptoms makes SBS rather insidious in the sense it that can often go unaddressed or dismissed as merely seasonal allergies, thus missing the direct link between symptoms and one’s work environment. Because of how delayed diagnosis can be, the associated morbidity of long term illnesses increase.

Sick Building Syndrome, while less endemic than it was a few decades ago, remains a pervasive issue, especially within offices that have not been remodeled to reflect current architectural trends. According to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, 24% of office workers participating cited problems with their building's air quality, 20% of whom claimed that this indoor air pollution impeded their ability to complete their tasks. Despite the rollout of new regulations as well as advancements in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC), millions of people still suffer from symptoms of Sick Building Syndrome daily, begging the question: why are conventional HVACs so ineffective at doing their job?


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  2. "Sick Building Syndrome (SBS)." The Environmental Illness Resource . N.p., 8 June 2017. Web. 22 June 2017.

  3. Joshi, Sumedha M. “The Sick Building Syndrome.” Indian Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 12.2 (2008): 61–64. PMC. Web. 22 June 2017.

  4. "Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in Commonly Used Products." New York State Department of Health . New York State Department of Health , July 2013. Web. 22 June 2017.