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Sick Building Syndrome



Sick building syndrome (SBS) is a combination of ailments (a syndrome) associated with an individual's place of work (office building), school, or residence. The term "sick building syndrome" (SBS) is used to describe situations in which building occupants experience acute health 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. In contrast, the term "building related illness" (BRI) is used when symptoms of diagnosable illness are identified and can be attributed directly to airborne building contaminants (US EPA). An example of BRI is Legionnaire's Disease, attributed to specific bacteria.

A 1984 World Health Organization report on sick building syndrome suggested that up to 30% of new and remodeled buildings worldwide may be linked to symptoms of SBS. Most sick building syndrome complaints are related to poor indoor air quality.

The health complaints often include: (SBS) "... symptoms associated with acute discomfort, e.g., headache; eye, nose, or throat irritation; dry cough; dry or itchy skin; dizziness and nausea; difficulty in concentrating; fatigue; and sensitivity to odors. The cause of the symptoms is not known. (BRI) include: ...symptoms such as cough; chest tightness; fever, chills; and muscle aches. The symptoms can be clinically defined and have clearly identifiable causes" (US EPA).

"Damp building / mold-related complaints may include allergic, hypersensitivity, toxicity - including immunotoxicity and neurotoxicity, mucous membrane or trigeminal nerve irritation, or infectious reactions" (Vojdani).  

"Damp buildings produce an environment where molds and bacteria grow: One consequence of indoor dampness is new or enhanced growth of fungi and other microbial agents, mold growth is usually accompanied by bacterial growth, mold and bacterial growth produce health effects, some research on fungi and bacteria focuses on specific components that may be  responsible for particular health effects: spores and hyphal fragments of fungi, spores and cells of bacteria, allergens of microbial origin, structural components of fungal and bacterial cells, and such products as microbial volatile organic compounds (MVOC's) and mycotoxins, release of these components varies..., bacteria and fungi can cause allergic responses, non-allergic, toxic and inflammatory effects, excessive indoor dampness is a public health problem, inhalation fevers are associated with occupational exposure to high concentrations of organic materials, including bacteria, fungi, and their associated constituents and emissions" (IOM, 2004).

This is an emerging illness, with complaints stemming from construction practices that began in the 1970s. Health complaints may be transient or become chronic, in some cases.

Sick building research shows that building-related symptoms are associated with building characteristics including dampness, cleanliness, and ventilation (NIOSH). Causes are frequently pinned down to flaws in the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. Other causes have been attributed to contaminants produced by outgassing of some types of building materials, volatile organic compounds, molds (see mold health issues), improper exhaust ventilation of light industrial chemicals used within, location of fresh-air intake, or lack of adequate air filtration (see Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value).

Symptoms are often dealt with after-the-fact by boosting the overall turnover rate of fresh air exchange with outside air, but the new green building design goal should be to avoid most of the SBS problem sources in the first place, minimize the ongoing use of VOC cleaning compounds, and eliminate conditions that encourage mold growth.


  1. Sick Building Syndrome Solutions in Australia, ecolibria - Building Biology
  2. IAQ Publications - Sick Building Syndrome Fact Sheet
  3. Boston Phoenix article on SBS complaints at Boston City Hall
  4. Telegraph article about a study linking SBS to job stress
  5. Inquiry into Sick Building Syndrome by NSW Parliament, Australia
  6. Chemical Injury Information Network
  7. US EPA Indoor Air Facts No. 4 (revised) Sick Building Syndrome
  8. Rutgers University Radon and Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools Program and IAQ Video
  9. IEQ Overview (CDC, NIOSH)
  10. Mold and Mildew Awareness, Indoor Air Quality (National Institute of Health)
  11. Health Effects of Mold (Vojdani)
  12. Sick Building Symptoms (The Center for School Mold Help)
  13. IOM: Damp Indoor Spaces and Health (2004); SMH summary:
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