Gannett News Service
We all know that our jobs can make us sick. We get headaches and indigestion from stress and overwork, not to mention the flu and colds from co-workers and customers. But what if the actual building where we work is what’s making us sick?
Known as “sick building syndrome,” workers complain of headaches, dizziness, nausea or difficulty concentrating — but only when they are at work. Once they walk out the door, they feel better.
The Environmental Protection Agency says that while these illnesses may indeed be caused by other things such as allergies or stress, it’s clear that the number of workers who complain of being ill in certain buildings is something that should be taken seriously.
How does a building get sick? Some of it may be the age of a structure.
For example, the World Health Organization reports that up to 30 percent of new and remodeled structures worldwide can get “excessive” complaints related to indoor air quality. Or the work being done in a building is something it was never intended for, such as using chemicals in a poorly ventilated structure.
Many buildings have less ventilation space than is ideal. During the oil crisis in the 1970s, the thought was that less space to heat or cool would cut down on energy costs. As a result, the ventilation space was also trimmed, and workers felt the discomfort. The recommendations now say that buildings should provide a minimum ventilation of 20 cubic feet per minute of outside air for each office building occupant, much greater than the 5 CFA’s put into place in the 1970s.
Workers in sick buildings often report having itchy skin, a dry cough or fatigue, which may be a result of exposure to chemicals from inside the building. Adhesives, carpeting, upholstery, manufactured wood products, copy machines, pesticides and cleaning agents can give off what is known at volatile organic compounds, which the EPA says can cause “chronic and acute reactions.”
Further, employees may be exposed to even low levels of these compounds, which can come from combustion products such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide. Other exposure hazards: unvented kerosene and gas space heaters, woodstoves, fireplaces and gas stoves.
There are other ways workers can become ill at work. Contaminants can breed in stagnant water that has collected in places like air ducts, humidifiers and drain pans. And that leaking ceiling? A good place for water to collect and grow bacteria, as well as the damp carpet. Such biological contamination can show up as a cough or muscle aches, and even grow into the Legionella bacterium, which causes Legionnaire’s disease.
The EPA recommends that if workers are becoming ill only at work, then possible contaminants in a building should be investigated. Some solutions include:
• Routine maintenance. This includes periodic cleaning and replacement of filters and getting rid of water-stained ceiling tiles and carpeting. Of course, eliminating or restricting indoor smoking is a good idea, as well as storing chemicals and paint outside the building. Experts say allowing new buildings or remodeled areas to air out or “off-gas” pollutants before workers move in is a good idea.
• Increasing ventilation rates and exhaust.
• Cleaning the air. It’s important to remember that there are limitations to filters, and they cannot be used as the only way to reduce contaminants. Filters in furnaces or elsewhere should be part of getting rid of contaminants from the building and improving ventilation.
• Education and communication. Workers, management and maintenance personnel should be aware of what causes sick building syndrome and how to spot potential problems and solve them.
For more information, check out the EPA Web site at www.epa.gov.
Source: The Desert Sun (Palm Springs, CA)