Sick Building Syndrome

Sick Building Syndrome (SBS)

sick building syndromeMost of today’s standard building and renovation materials such as MDF, carpeting, adhesives, paints and particleboard release volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Your freshly painted ‘new home smell’ is the result of off gassing chemicals.

“Indoor facilities impact our environment and health.”

We spend a great amount of time indoors and for several years a disease which has now been identified as sick building syndrome is known to create such diverse symptoms as headaches, dizziness, impaired concentration, skin irritation, respiratory irritation and allergic reactions. Studies have indicated that there are various indoor air pollutants, often in high concentrations, which contribute to the disease. In addition, recognised occupational diseases often occur as a result of the constant contact with chemicals used in construction.

Indoor comfort

Comfort indoors is essential for quality of life and performance of the people who work in these areas. Simply, comfort is due to four main factors:

  • Temperature and humidity
  • Trouble-free housing
  • Optimum light
  • Psychological comfort

The first two points above will be discussed briefly here:

Temperature and humidity

Whether we perceive a room as comfortable is not regulated soley by air temperature. Comfort is determined when the difference between air and wall temperature is as low as possible. Good insulation of floors, walls, ceiling and windows is essential. The selection of interior materials also influences the level of comfort. Good heat-conducting materials such as cork or poor heat-conducting materials such as tile, which are warm only with infloor heating, will contribute to a home’s comfort.

Humidity also plays a part in the comfort of a room but may also be a problem. Too much humidity may mainfest with mold infestation. Interior surfaces will absorb humidity and release it again when the air is too dry. The type of material chosen will determine the capacity of humidity absorption and release. These exchanges contribute significantly to a balanced indoor climate. The property of materials incorporated in a room contributes to the balancing effect on the indoor climate and can be very different depending on the building. Open-pore materials such as wood, limestone, clay, drywall and natural fibers have absorption capacity. In contrast, plastics, glass and lacquered finishes do not have high absorbtion capacity.
If the air in a room seems too dry the first thing to do is to check the relative humidity with a reliable hygrometer. When the values are well below 40% relative humidity, the air is considered dry. The ideal is 40% to a maximum of 60% humidity. With high humidity, components, furniture and textiles will result in a higher ERH and at temperatures of 20 degrees a person will be feel cooler than in a room with less humidity.

Trouble-free housing

Air exchange in a room with well sealed windows is so small that it may take 5 hours for the existing air to be replaced by fresh air. Pollutants that are diluted sufficiently with proper ventilation would therefore accumulate in the air. Fatigue and poor concentration can simply be the result of well-sealed windows. For this reason, a 0.5 fold air change is recommended. Removing seals will not solve the problem. With low outside temperatures an unpleasant draft would be created and air changes would remain too small. In warm weather airing several times a day to change air is in practice often just theory.


Poor indoor air can be the cause of mood disorders and more serious diseases in adults. Measurements have shown repeatedly that the quality of air indoors is often worse than on busy roads. Some indoor pollutants can harm the nervous system or internal organs or increase the risk of cancer. Headache, dizziness, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, mucous membrane irritation, strong mood swings or mood disorders, may be associated with an indoor environment. These symptoms are often not enough to be labeled as a specific illness and therefore difficult to identify the cause.

Pollutants can cause or intensify allergies. The concept of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity refers to a general hypersensitivity to chemicals. Low concentrations may cause irritation. The odors of paint, varnish, adhesives and cleaning agents can cause symptoms such as headaches, sleep and concentration problems. With prolonged exposure the nervous system can be affected. Certain solvents can damage the immune system along with internal organs. Adequate ventilation when using solvent-based products and the selection of solvent-free or low solvent products minimize the impact.

Formaldehyde is a pollutant which can be emitted from wood products, adhesives, coatings and disinfectants as well it can be a by product of smoking. Formaldehyde can irritate mucous membranes and cause nausea, breathing difficulties and headaches. According to MAK value list formaldehyde is classified as a substance with carcinogenic potential. The formaldehyde regulation restricts emissions allowed in wood products. Products that exceed a concentration of 0.1 ml/m3 (ppm) are not avilable for sale.
It can be difficult to measure and detect emissions, odors and indoor pollutants such as formaldehyde which are responsible for health complaints. Aromas from building materials, cigarette smoking or cleaning products can cause a highly individual reaction. Some people are especially sensitive to smells, while others are vulnerable when they come into contact with specific chemicals.

Mold spores

Mold spores may cause allergic reactions and cause bronchial asthma. Furthermore, they are considered a possible contributor to Sick Building Syndrome, which was first observed in air-conditioned buildings. In particular, air conditioner filters can constitute a relevant source of fungal spores. Poisoning is only possible after swallowing mold spores. Skin diseases caused by spores are only possible with a system already weakened by disease, injury or compromised immunity.

Radioactivity from building materials

More than half of the natural radiation exposure is from inhalation of radioactive noble gas radon. Building materials give off radon and contribute through alpha radiation from the radiation burden. Granite slabs and waste products can have elevated radioactive levels. Organic based building materials show virtually no radioactivity.