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Sick Building Syndrome and airborne contaminants

When building occupants are becoming ill from their environment but the exact cause is unknown, it’s called Sick Building Syndrome. This situation is a concern to anyone responsible for the health and well being of building occupants.

When building occupants are becoming ill from their environment but the exact cause is unknown, it’s called Sick Building Syndrome. This situation is a concern to anyone responsible for the health and well being of building occupants. That includes building and facilities managers who are motivated to protect occupant health, but who also recognize the personal and potential financial losses a “sick” building causes.

Most often, airborne contaminants are at the root of the problem, although the specific cause of the problem may not yet be known. There are two primary categories of airborne pollutants that are usually involved:

  • Biological Contaminants. This includes bacteria, moulds, pollen and viruses, among other pollutants.
  • Chemical Contaminants. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), tobacco smoke and other sources of chemicals and odours.

The source of these contaminants may be outside the building itself, but in most cases the contaminant source is indoors.

Biological Contaminants

These contaminants are living organisms (or their byproducts), including bacteria, pollen, mound, dander, mites, houses dust, cockroaches, pollen and viruses. Biological contaminants are often the result excessive moisture or high humidity, which produce an ideal breeding ground. Bird, vermin and insect droppings also fall into the biological contaminant category. They accumulate just about anywhere, including ventilation ducts, carpeting, ceiling tiles, insulation, standing water, furniture fabric, humidifiers and drain pans.

Chemical Contaminants

Chemical contaminants are gas-phase contaminants. These are atoms and/or molecules smaller than 0.003 microns, the smallest particles. Chemical contaminants may originate from both indoor and outdoor sources.

Indoor: Some sources are obvious, such as cleaning products and pesticides. Many of these products release potentially dangerous chemicals, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Other sources go by largely unnoticed even though they, too, emit VOCs. Carpeting, adhesives, computers, photocopiers, heaters, manufactured wood products, lighting and paint emit toxic chemical compounds.

Outdoor: Pollutants from outdoors can enter a building in any number of ways, including doors, windows, cracks and vents. Car exhausts, especially fumes from nearby garages, are a major source of contaminants. Outdoor pesticides, smokestack emissions, agricultural and urban waste, forest fires and smog can all make their way into a building, having an effect on the indoor air quality.

Various Effects of Contaminants

Indoor contaminants can affect air quality alone or in combination with one another. Because the variables are so vast, Sick Building Syndrome can be extremely difficult to diagnose. It’s worth looking for the root cause if occupants are complaining of the following symptoms regularly:

  • Irritated eyes, nose or throat
  • Lethargy and chronic fatigue
  • Infectious diseases
  • Headaches, dizziness or nausea
  • Skin irritation and rashes

All of these symptoms may be related to indoor air quality. Building managers and facilities managers should learn to recognize the potential sources and symptoms of sick building syndrome and be ready to take corrective action quickly when needed.

Steps Building Managers Can Take

Building and facilities managers can start with a Healthy Building Checklist to stay ahead of potential problems. The checklist should be completed while conducting an inspection of the facility, and should address a number of signs of potential problems. The list should include:

  • Are employees complaining of headaches, skin irritation, fevers or other symptoms?
  • Are there any identifiable increases in absenteeism?
  • Is unusual dust or dirt visible near air diffusers or in the air?
  • Are there any unpleasant odours detectable? These could include cleaning-solvent odours, musty smells, or other odours.
  • Is there there any microbial growth -- including mould or slime -- on any visible surfaces or within the HVAC system?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, it’s time to take action before a limited problem becomes a big problem. IQAir air quality specialists are available for consultation regarding the air quality in any building. They can also help develop customized solutions. For more information, visit

IQAir is a Swiss-based air quality technology company that since 1963 empowers individuals, organizations and communities to breathe cleaner air through information, collaboration and technology solutions.