Sick Building Syndrome Symptoms, Causes, Prevention & Solutions

Sick Building Syndrome or (SBS) is a term used to describe circumstances in which building occupants experience serious health conditions that appear to be linked to spending time in a particular building. The complaints may come from the whole building, or it can be compartmentalized to a specific room or a section of the building. SBS is most commonly reported in the work place environment and therefore may be frowned upon. SBS can occur in residential areas that have had extensive hurricane or flood damage.

Outgassing is a phenomenon that occurs when the quality of air has been compromised. This can be particularly harmful if it develops in a closed environment including the human body. Outgassing is a release of a gas or a slow chemical reaction in a closed environment.

In general, most people will not be able to feel, smell or see the toxins that are in the building
or closed environment. But, some sensitive individuals can have allergic reactions to the toxins. These individuals might also be able to smell the toxins.


Even though contaminants are contained to the same building or location, symptoms can vary from person to person. But the symptoms generally occur over a short duration of time and may become noticeable within two to three weeks.

Symptoms can include sensory irritation neurotoxic or general health problems including non-specific reactions such as hypersensitivity to odors. Frequent complaints of eye, throat, or nose irritation including nosebleeds are not uncommon. Dizziness, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, nausea, headache, dry or itchy skin, and dry cough are also common symptoms.

The specific ‘cause’ of the symptoms is not known. Usually the condition is temporary.
Most SBS symptoms lessen or leave almost immediately once an individual is removed from the contaminated location. In some individuals neurotoxins can linger and cause ill side effects. These neurotoxins can cause long term health effects in sensitive individuals.


The three sources of contaminants are indoor, outdoor and biological. Below is a brief list of some of the most common causes.


Indoor contaminants are commonly found in the form of air pollutants. Low levels of volatile organic compounds or (VOC’s) can produce acute reactions, but at higher levels of concentration research shows it can cause both acute and chronic health effects.

  • Asbestos
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) such as cleaning products, formaldehyde, manufactured plastic and wood products
  • Carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide
  • Furnishings with the ‘new smell’
  • Adhesives and carpeting
  • Environmental tobacco smoke
  • Synthetic fragrances in personal care products


Outdoor contaminants can enter a building and cause indoor air pollution.

  • Airborne particles such as molds or pollens
  • Exhaust fumes from vehicles
  • Poor ventilation from external air or heat systems
  • Recirculation of a buildings own exhaust system


Biological contaminants can be spread at a rapid pace from one employee to another through recirculating air. Biological contaminants can multiply quickly in stagnant water.

  • Bacteria
  • Bird and insect droppings
  • Fungus
  • Molds
  • Pollen
  • Viruses


Air samples can be taken to check for the possibility of contaminants. Samples can include checking for Co2, air movement, relative humidity, and temperature. These tests can prove to be misleading because the contaminants may rarely exceed the toxicity level ‘guidelines.’ Testing for biotoxins in the body can also give inaccurate readings and be unmeasurable.

Prevention and Solutions

  • Locating and removing the source of the pollutant
  • Routine maintenance and periodic cleaning of building systems
  • Replace filters, water stained carpet and water stained tiles
  • Smoking restrictions
  • Increasing air distribution and the rate of ventilation
  • Specific ventilation for designated areas such as bathrooms, copy rooms and printing facilities

Communication and education are the best tools for prevention. Once complaints or health concerns begin to surface, prompt attention should be given to find the root cause. The quicker the source can be found, the faster the situation can be controlled and remedied.

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