Does sick building syndrome fit into the Well Living Lab’s work?

The emergence of “office illness,” later labeled “sick building syndrome” by the World Health Organization in the 1980s, drew a flurry of media attention and immense public concern three decades ago. Issues continue to occur today, though improvements in reducing building material emissions, ventilation requirements and policies such as no indoor smoking have greatly reduced the likelihood for sick building syndrome occurrences. Outside the United States, many countries are dealing with the same mistakes and issues that occurred 20-40 years ago in the U .S.

One of the most prominent examples of sick building syndrome was Legionnaire’s disease in 1976, when more than 200 people attending an American Legion convention in a Philadelphia hotel became ill and 34 died. The cause eventually was linked to bacteria in the ventilation system. Other outbreaks have happened globally since then from Spain to Australia, Poland to Canada and the UK to Tasmania.

Another example of the syndrome occurred in Japan where the health of elementary school children was impacted by the dampness in classrooms. (Dampness means the presence of unwanted moisture in a facility). The children’s homes were evaluated as part of the investigation, before determining the school building was causing the student’s symptoms such as chronic cough, dry skin and nasal problems.

An overarching definition of sick building syndrome is general illness suffered by a number of people while they are in a building. Sick building syndrome could occur from biological causes, as was the case for Legionnaire’s disease. Sick building syndrome also can occur chemically, from off-gassing from building materials or emissions from human activities such as smoking.  Biological causes can manifest into chemical issues such as wet building materials emitting unhealthy chemicals. Biological cases can lead to asthma through human contact with spores and allergens. Some research suggests that the psychosocial work environment of an office building also could be contributing to sick building syndrome.

Symptoms range from a stuffy or runny nose, sinus issues, stomach aches and headaches, irritated eyes, skin and throats, fatigue and difficulty concentrating. Usually when people leave the indoor environment where the illness began, their symptoms quickly get better or go away completely.  That was not the case with Legionnaire’s disease, however.

Clearly, materials used to construct or decorate buildings and homes can cause people to get sick or make a pre-existing condition worse. How a building operates, such as its ventilation system, water leaks causing moisture-damaged building materials with mold growth, too high or too low humidity levels and other thermal conditions all can contribute to people falling ill. Increasing ventilation can lead to symptom improvements. This can be done by increasing the air exchange rate, which is the rate at which indoor air is replaced with cleaner air by the ventilation system.

Yes, sick building syndrome fits into the Well Living Lab’s research.  Reducing the likelihood of people developing acute or chronic illness by addressing their physical environment is a significant focus for us. Sick building syndrome has led to advanced thinking about the relationship between buildings and the health of the building occupants.

But illness and illness prevention aren’t the only priorities. The lab also is looking to discover how buildings can enhance your health. That includes everything from how people can sleep better and wake up more refreshed to how physicians can someday prescribe changes to a person’s home to support health, well-being, performance, resiliency and more. This facet of science is gaining momentum because of the future applications it promises for people and society.