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What Is Sick Building Syndrome?

Updated on September 4, 2017
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

Science graduate and business advisor, health educator and author, Beth writes articles on a wide variety of subjects.

Sick Buildings Can Make You Feel Tired and Hopeless


What Are the Symptoms of Sick Building Syndrome?

The term Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) was coined to cover incidents of workplace ill-health where no specific medical or social cause could be identified. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says “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."

The definition is vague as the symptoms can be many and varied. Not everyone in the same office will experience the same (if any) symptoms. The possible causes and cures for SBS are still being investigated, but no research project has so far produced definitive answers to the problem.

EPA Says SBS is Real

In severe cases, Sick Buildings Syndrome can affect attitudes to work and may represent a significant cost to business in the form of:

* reduced staff efficiency;

* increased absenteeism and staff turnover;

* extended breaks and reduced overtime;

* lost time complaining and dealing with complaints.

— UK Health & Safety Executive

What Are the Causes of Sick Building Syndrome?

One theory is that indoor pollutants are the culprit. Sick Building Syndrome may occur in modern workplaces because they use recycled air systems. If the air conditioning unit is faulty or inadequate, then bacteria, exhaust chemicals and other pollutants remain in the “fresh” air that is pumped into the office. It’s rare to find an openable window in a concrete and glass tower office-block. Employees have no way to get real fresh air into their lungs. Instead, they must rely on an air-filters to keep the atmosphere clean and healthy.

A type of pollution often forgotten about is noise. Working environments are never silent. There may be loud phone conversations, constant machine noise, or incessant background music. These add to stress levels and irritability.

If you are working in an open plan office or factory, you have no control over the temperature of your surroundings. If you are too hot or too cold, this can affect your resilience to disease and other workplace pressures. Your resistance is lowered and so you could end up suffering from SBS.

Some suggest that Sick Building Syndrome is linked to stressful working conditions rather than a problem with the physical work environment. The symptoms are very real, but they have been caused by the person feeling under pressure, rather than by any defect in air quality or allergens present.

The US Environmental Protection Agency has concluded there is no known cause for SBS. However, they suggest the following may be contributory factors; inadequate ventilation, indoor chemical contaminants (adhesives, copy machines and cleaning agents), car exhaust fumes entering the building through poorly located air intake vents, and biological contaminants (bacteria, mold, pollen and viruses).

An Unhealthy Workplace Can Make You Exhausted

Symptoms of Sick Buildings Syndrome Include the Following:
Eye, nose or throat irritation
Dry cough
Dry or itchy skin
Dizziness and nausea
Difficulty in concentrating
Sensitivity to odors
The cause of the symptoms is unknown.
Most report relief soon after leaving the building.
US Environmental Protection Agency

Poor Ventilation And Indoor Contaminants Can Make You Unwell

Have you ever suffered from Sick Buildings Syndrome?

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What Can You Do to Improve the Situation?

1. Inform your manager of your health concerns. They will be able to check with the maintenance team that your workplace air-conditioning system is working properly. A good employer will regularly monitor indoor air for chemical, bacterial and fungal air pollutants.

2. You should go outside the building during your breaks. This gives your lungs a chance to breath some fresher air that is different to your office environment. A short walk will also help lower your stress levels.

3. Talk to your colleagues and staff representatives about the temperature and lighting levels in your workplace. You may not be the only person who would like to see them altered. Joint action can help improve your working conditions.

4. Brighten up your office with some plants. Research (see below) shows that many houseplants, including palms, bamboos and rubber plants, can absorb harmful chemical pollutants so improving interior air quality.

Ficus Elastica Robusta (Indian Rubber Tree) Cleans Indoor Air


Houseplants Help Reduce Indoor Pollution

Not only do houseplants help lift your mood, but they have also been shown to clean the surrounding air. NASA research in 1989 concluded that interior plants have an important role to play in controlling indoor pollution. The chemicals studied were ones that are known to affect health and included benzene, trichloroethylene, and formaldehyde. The plants chosen for the study were 50 common indoor varieties.

The lead NASA researcher, Dr. B.C. Wolverton, gives full details of how well each of the plants performed in “How to Grow Fresh Air - 50 Houseplants that Purify Your Home or Office". The book is well illustrated making it easy to choose a plant you would enjoy sharing your desk with. He rates each plant for its effectiveness in removing indoor chemical pollutants. He also explains how easy or otherwise it is to care for each plant.

His top five recommendations for houseplants that improve indoor air quality are as follows.

1. Areca Palm (Chrysalidocarpus lutescens).

2. Lady Palm (Rhapis excelsa).

3. Bamboo palm (Chamaedorea seifrizii).

4. Rubber Plant (Ficus robusta).

5. Dracaena “Janet Craig” (Dracaena deremensis).

Lady Palm Used as a House Plant Reduces Indoor Air Pollution


In the last several years, a growing body of scientific evidence has indicated that the air within homes and other buildings can be more seriously polluted than the outdoor air in even the largest and most industrialized cities. Other research indicates that people spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors. Thus, for many people, the risks to health may be greater due to exposure to air pollution indoors than outdoors.

— US Environmental Protection Agency

Further Information

The following government webpages provide further information about the causes and symptoms of Sick Building Syndrome.

US Environmental Protection Agency

UK Health & Safety Executive


Submit a Comment

  • MsDora profile image

    Dora Isaac Weithers 9 months ago from The Caribbean

    Very informative and helpful. All the possible causes mentioned are culprits at one time or another. These facts should be taken seriously. Going outdoors and keeping indoor plants are two of my preferred suggestions.