You have heard about this ‘sick building syndrome’ and quickly associated it with how you are feeling lately. You have been having flu and allergy-like symptoms and other disturbing ailments for no reason. It is easy to quickly blame your HVAC system as the source and for the deficient state of your indoor air quality. Is your indoor air quality suffering from Sick Building Syndrome?
Giving your HVAC system the benefit of the doubt, let us see first what this sick building syndrome is all about, how to diagnose it, and what practical steps you can take to prevent it.
Is Your HVAC System Giving You The “Sick Building Syndrome?”
Sick Building Syndrome or SBS is a disputed medical condition said to be common in residents of about 30% of new and remodeled buildings. It manifests in a wide range of seemingly unrelated symptoms, but SBS is heavily attributed to the poor indoor air quality of the building.
There are various health problems associated with SBS. People who report having SBS suffer unexplained health symptoms such as respiratory problems including throat irritation, breathing difficulties, tightness in the chest, runny nose, sneezing, and burning sensations in the nose.
Neurological manifestations were also reported such as headaches, dizziness, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, fatigue, irritability, and nausea. Some other symptoms presented as body aches, fever, chills, and skin rashes.
Despite the controversy, persons who initially claim to suffer from the sick building syndrome have been found to have an adverse reaction to indoor air pollutants caused by the inadequate distribution of air throughout the building by heating or air conditioning systems, chemical contaminants from indoor sources such as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), and biological contaminants like molds and mildew to name a few.
Because indoor air quality can be heavily influenced by HVAC systems, how it is used and maintained can greatly impact whether residents of the building are susceptible to SBS symptoms or not.
The moderate use of air conditioning systems can prevent dehydration of residents which often leads to other physical problems such as headaches, sore throat, and allergy-like symptoms. Regularly replacing or cleaning washable filters can also reduce the risk of airborne allergens recirculating in your breathing space. Proper checkups and maintenance from your trusted technician can help you detect any issues with the unit that can contribute to environmental illnesses.
The advent of air conditioning in common households has been a huge leap for humanity in terms of comfort and convenience. Being able to control the indoor temperature in your own home is a power in itself in this ever-warming world. Not to mention the ability to remove that infuriating humid and sticky feeling from your environment with a few clicks on the thermostat or even on your phone is a huge deal.
But this power that the AC offers comes with a great price, not just literally but health-wise. Several studies pointed to heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) characteristics as risk factors for building-related sicknesses such as increased likelihood to develop asthma and exposure to indoor allergens.
One recurring complaint in air-conditioned spaces like homes and offices is what they call the ‘sick building syndrome.’ Is this a legit medical condition? How do you diagnose this syndrome? How can you stay away from it while still being inside the building?
Is Your Building Sick?
The National Center for Biotechnology Information or NCBI, an established national resource for molecular biology, biomedical, and genomic information, discusses the topic of sick building syndrome in its published studies.
The Sick Building Syndrome or SBS is known by many names such as the Tight Building Syndrome, environmental illnesses, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, and Building-Related Illness. It is defined as “a situation in which the occupants of a building experience acute health or comfort-related effects that seem to be linked directly to the time spent in the building.”
The term was coined in the 1970s when people reported having been sick after spending long hours in a building, which got better when they vacate the space, only for the symptoms to recur when they returned to the alleged sick building. ‘Sick building syndrome' became a prevalent moniker in the 1980s until the 1990s to describe a “group of symptoms attributed to the physical environment of specific buildings,” says the Health Science Journal.
The researchers admitted that although many different symptoms are associated with SBS, there is no definite cause for it. There are also no certified tests to prove the presence of SBS in an individual, nor are there specific treatments to prevent and cure it.
Because of its ambiguity, many medical experts question its legitimacy as an ailment. MedicineNet reasons that “the controversy exists because a number of people have a constellation of nonspecific symptoms that have no proven etiology, yet believe they occur from sources inside buildings.”
Some doctors even claimed that SBS is nothing but psychological problems in people who said they have the illness: whether it is anxiety, dissatisfaction with their work or where they live, or other mental conditions.
If there is not enough medical proof that this illness exists, why should you be worried about this ‘sick building syndrome,’ then?
People who initially complained about SBS are later diagnosed to have an interconnected web of illnesses caused by poor indoor air quality. While the validity of the sick building syndrome is debated, the dangers of indoor air pollution inside the home and the office are very much real.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dedicated an entire section of its site to indoor air quality, the immediate and long-term effects of indoor pollution, the causes of air quality issues, and how to resolve them.
In EPA’s long list of sources of indoor pollutants, inadequate distribution of air throughout the building by heating or air conditioning systems, chemical contaminants from indoor sources, and biological contaminants appeared to be the most recurring.
How bad can these indoor pollutants impact your health?
Is Your Building Making You Sick, Too?
Building-related illnesses could create a dizzying array of respiratory and neurological dilemmas. If symptoms such as throat irritation, breathing difficulties, tightness in the chest, runny nose, sneezing, and burning sensations in the nose are not enough to make you want to escape the building, there are also headaches and difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, fatigue, irritability, and nausea. Some other symptoms presented as body aches, fever, chills, and skin rashes.
Mild cases acquire one or two of these health issues, but some severe cases can present a majority or all of these symptoms. How could this happen?
A representative of the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis at Cornell University, Mr. Alan Hedge, shared that the birth of SBS in the 1970s can be linked to the ventilation standards being lowered during that period due to the reduction of energy use in response to the oil embargo. From 15 cubic feet per minute (cfm) of outside air for each building occupant, it was reduced to 5 cfm per occupant. This national energy conservation measure was followed by a flood of building-related health complaints.
In the modern days, a similar concern can happen when occupants of a residence or office building are cramped for space. Another huge factor being blamed is that HVAC systems do not circulate the air well enough to reach every occupant in the building.
EPA declared that most chemical toxins can easily be found at home and may gradually deteriorate the indoor air quality. Fuel-burning combustion appliances, tobacco products, newly installed flooring, upholstery or carpet, and household cleaning products are some of the indoor air pollution sources listed by the government sector.
These seemingly harmless chemicals lying around the house or office also have the potential to emit Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) that are known to be carcinogens or cancer-causing in elevated exposures, including but not limited to damage to the liver, kidney, and central nervous system.
Air Quality Problems
A high level of humidity proves to be the promoter of biological contaminants such as molds, mildews, bacteria, dust mites, and other insects. Mold contamination also seems to be a common ground for most SBS suspected cases.
Being products of nature, these contaminants are typical irritants of residences and offices and are hard to eradicate. "Many of these biological contaminants are small enough to be inhaled,” EPA warns and prolonged exposure to them can bring you sneezing, watery eyes, coughing, shortness of breath at the very least, and hypersensitivity pneumonitis, allergic rhinitis, and asthma at some of the worst effects.
Treat the Building, Treat You
Your case is still not hopeless. If leaving your apartment building or workplace to be free of the abovementioned sicknesses is out of the question, there are still recommendations from medical and government agencies that you can venture to help with your situation.
Follow Ventilation Standards
While air-conditioning thrives in airtight environments, the HVAC industry still recognizes the importance of adequate and proper ventilation. The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), an established association championing the advancement of the HVAC industry through design and construction, recommends in their 2016 "Ventilation and Acceptable Indoor Air Quality in Residential Buildings" Standards for “homes to receive 0.35 air changes per hour but not less than 15 cubic feet of air per minute (cfm) per person.”
To prevent health problems caused by poor ventilation, it is responsible to check if your residence complies with these standards.
Eliminate Indoor Air Pollutants
Once you identify which of the sources of indoor air pollutants or a combination of them that have been bothering you, the urgent solution is to remove them from your living space or workspace. If the root of the problem is chemical irritants, you may do well to dispose of them instead of suffering the consequences to your family's well-being.
Maintain the Right Level of Humidity
Proper sizing of the AC unit versus the space it is supposed to cool and quality installation by a top-notch contractor are prevention methods for having humidity problems in the future. Make sure that there is no exposed earth or stagnant water in dark, damp places in your area where mold and mildew can breed. Finally, the use of a dehumidifier can be considered in places where humidity cannot be easily controlled.
Constant and Planned Cleaning of Air Filters
Filters are a double-edged sword when it comes to airborne allergens. They are tasked to filtrate solid and dust-like particles to reenter your breathing space. But as soon as they are overwhelmed with dust buildup, filters can cough back to your home the harmful particles it trapped, making it free again to be inhaled. Plus, uncleaned filters can decrease the AC unit’s performance to distribute cool air and more importantly, remove the excess moisture.
Do Not Overuse the AC
Regardless of how well-ventilated or free from chemical or biological pollutants your building is, you can still be prone to SBS-like illnesses if you immoderately use your air conditioning system. Dehydration from the cold, inevitably followed by headaches, sore throat, and allergy-like symptoms are waiting for you if you stay in an air-conditioned space 24/7.