Karoline Gore | Industry Era

Sick Building, Sick Business?

Pollution makes us sick. 7 million people die each year from the effects of air pollution. One third of lung cancer, heart disease and stroke deaths are due to air pollution, according to the WHO (World Health Organization). Americans spend up to 90 percent of their time inside each day, and it's a lesser known statistic that the air we breathe indoors is often up to five times more polluted than outside. The health and well-being of employees is integral to the success of a business. Poor indoor air quality (IAQ) is a major known contributor to phenomena like Sick Building Syndrome, which can wreak havoc on the performance and reputation of a business.

What Is Sick Building Syndrome?

The term has been around since the 70s, with a variety of theories surrounding why it began when it did. The majority of indoor air pollution actually comes from sources inside the building. Things like carpet and upholstery that have been chemically treated, copy machines and pesticides contain toxic compounds that are regularly released into the air and inhaled. Common household and industrial cleaning products contain ingredients which cause both acute and chronic health issues, some of which are known carcinogens. Sick Building Syndrome refers to a collection of illnesses or symptoms that affect multiple workers or occupants in a building without a single identifiable cause, which are alleviated when an affected person is out of the building for an extended period. Some common symptoms of SBS include headache, nausea, dizziness, difficulty focusing, cold and flu-like symptoms, fatigue, and lethargy.

Implications For Businesses

While symptoms of SBS generally disappear pretty quickly after those affected stop spending time in the affected building, there are some more serious, wider implications and side effects for the businesses inside the building. Office conditions can greatly affect a worker's willingness to remain at a job, potentially increasing staff turnover. It has been reported that productivity levels in a sick building are often reduced by up to 20 percent, with workers unable to focus fully, or absent from work entirely due to increased illness. In more extreme cases, employees can potentially file litigation against their employers for having become ill as a result of poor indoor air quality in the workplace, leading to hefty settlements and expensive building renovations, repairs or, less frequently, demolition.

What Businesses Can Do

Opening windows, if possible, and allowing fresh air into the work space is a simple and inexpensive way to instantly improve IAQ. However, if the problems are more serious, this alone won't solve them. Commercial buildings can - and should - be evaluated just as homes are to check the condition of the air itself, and assess the HVAC system and other potential sources of contamination or pollutants. Certified mold inspectors can sample the air and hard surfaces in a building to determine whether or not mold contamination exists and, if so, what must be done to remedy the issue. A building investigator checking for other types of pollution, can locate sources, such as poorly located building exhausts (from kitchens and bathrooms, for example), plumbing vents, and fumes that may enter the offices from an adjacent garage. They can then advise on how the problem will best be solved. The solution could be as simple as replacing filters or ducts, or even installing a new thermostat.

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