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Sick building syndrome (SBS) 

NHS Direct Online Health Encyclopaedia

Introduction Sick building syndrome (SBS) is a term used to describe a range of common symptoms, associated with particular buildings. SBS may affect people in a particular part of the building or it may be spread throughout. SBS cannot be diagnosed precisely and should not be confused with specific building-related illness such as legionnaire's disease, or with the effects of exposure to hazardous or toxic substances, or problems with excessive heat, cold or noise. Reports of SBS most commonly involve those employed in large office buildings. The health effects seem to be linked to time spent in the building.

Symptoms seem to increase in severity with the amount of time spent in the building, and become less severe when time is spent away from it. No specific illness or cause can be identified. The health effects appear to cause no lasting damage, although they can be debilitating at the time. Symptoms There are a number of possible symptoms. These include: Fatigue, Headache, Eye, nose or throat irritation, Skin irritation, Dry cough, Irritability and difficulty concentrating, Nausea and dizziness, and Hypersensitivity to odours. The symptoms rapidly reduce soon after leaving the building and may disappear, for example when you are on holiday, but return during the working week.

Causes Although the cause of SBS is unknown, there are a number of factors that are likely to be involved. Office cleaning chemicals, adhesives, upholstery, carpeting, photocopiers, faxes, printers and other equipment, causing indoor air pollution; Bacteria, viruses, pollen and mould breeding in air-conditioning systems, drains and humidifiers: these may spread, causing a variety of symptoms; Changes in humidity levels in a building; Poor ventilation - often found in large open plan areas offices: air conditioning and heating is often used but ventilation can be poor and windows cannot be opened, so staff have poor control over ventilation and the indoor environment; Polluted outside air from chemicals, vehicle exhausts, fumes from heating and plumbing systems being drawn into the building through vents or windows; Temperatures that are too high or low (or fluctuate rapidly); Psychological factors due to lack of control over ventilation, heating, lighting etc in the work place. SBS has been recognised as a condition by the World Health Organisation since 1982. Prevention Employers have a legal responsibility to prevent work-related accidents and ill health.

 Where SBS is suspected, it should be investigated promptly and systematically, starting with the most likely sources. However the causes of SBS may be complex and difficult to identify. Employers should check the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems and correct any faults. Temperatures should not be too high or too low or fluctuate rapidly. Ventilation systems should be checked to ensure that they do not take air in from badly positioned sources, so car exhaust fumes, fumes from heating and plumbing systems, toilets and kitchens are not circulated through the building. Improving air-flow and ventilation often improves SBS symptoms. Any specific pollutants should be identified and removed if possible. Air filters can be used or air may need to be vented directly to the outside, especially from smoking rooms, print rooms, copy rooms and other places that contain many chemicals or contaminants.

If paints, solvents, pesticides or adhesives are used or stored the area should be very well ventilated. The cleanliness of the carpets and furnishings should also be assessed and dust levels kept low. Carpets or ceiling tiles that have been damaged by water leaks etc. should be replaced. Employers should ask for the views of their staff and their complaints should be investigated. The workplace should be organised to maximise comfort.

© Queen's Printer and Controller of HMSO, 2005

Crown copyright material is reproduced with the permission of the controller of HMSO and the Queens Printer for Scotland.



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