Dr Frances Pitsilis discusses the controversial topic of sick building syndrome

Does going to work make you sick? Some people think it could be due to the air and the others due to the people. Sick building syndrome is a controversial condition that presents with numerous non-specific symptoms that occur while you are in a particular building and get better after you have left it.

Symptoms can include: Mental fatigue, reduced memory, drowsiness, reduced concentration, dizziness, a feeling of intoxication, nausea, odour or taste complaints, runny nose and eyes and asthma-type symptoms.

The full definition of sick building syndrome is that of an illness associated with the indoor environment where the symptoms and non-specific causes of the symptoms are unknown. So, by definition, like any other syndrome, there is no cause for this condition.


Once a cause is found then it is no longer called sick building syndrome. An example of this could be an illness that you can get from being in a building - like Legionnaires disease, which is an infection that you can catch from the air conditioning system.

Sick building syndrome first came to light in the 1970s. In 1984 the World Health Organization said that up to 30 per cent of office workers suffer from it.

With the increased need to economise and the invention of new building techniques and materials, as well as air conditioning, there has been an increase in sick building syndrome cases.

In Europe where buildings were built well before 1961, these older buildings carry only a five per cent incidence of sick building syndrome - these buildings are mainly made of stone and are not mechanically ventilated.

The people who are more likely to get this condition include women, those who are undergoing life stress, those who have a poor lifestyle like smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise.

In addition, stress at work, the person's personality and use of computers have been associated with this condition.

Chemical and building causes can include the following: Indoor chemicals, including adhesives; carpeting, upholstery, manufactured wood products like chipboard, pesticides and cleaning compounds.

Formaldehyde and combustion products like carbon monoxide and nitric oxide can also be to blame. There are also breathable particles that can all come from unvented kerosene and gas space heaters, wood stoves, fireplaces and gas stoves.


Outdoor air that enters the building can come from car exhaust fumes, plumbing vents and building exhausts like bathroom and kitchen smells.

Biological contaminants that have been implicated can include bacteria, moulds, pollen and viruses - they can breed in stagnant water in ducts, humidifiers and where water has collected on ceiling tiles, carpeting or insulation.

In addition, the house dust mite, proteins shed by people, pets or pests can sometimes be implicated.

Building characteristics that can make all of the above things worse include situations where the building is completely sealed and air conditioned. Dampness and mould is an issue, as is overcrowding.

Computers have been found to emit phenol, toluene, 2-ethyl hexanol, formaldehyde and styrene. They also emit light and electromagnetic radiation.

The solution to sick building syndrome is to deal with all the problems above.

The first thing to do is to remove the source of pollution or modify the systems affecting pollution. This would involve good maintenance and cleaning of air conditioners, installing indoor plants, paying attention to water-logged carpet and ceilings, and prohibiting smoking.

It is important to vent any exhausts to the outside and to pay attention to the storage of any chemicals, paints or solvents. It is also important to allow a new or reconditioned building plenty of time to vent off any gases of chemicals before it is occupied.

Everybody needs to participate in preventing sick building syndrome, starting from the initial design and building stage. The design of the building and the location of vents, air conditioners and exhausts are important.

The owner/occupier needs to ensure adequate system maintenance and air intake, good maintenance and consideration of what chemicals are used for cleaning, disinfection and pest control within the building.

The tenants or occupants of the building need to consider the occupant density and to avoid bringing in new sources of chemicals, microbes or pollutions.

Last but not least, there needs to be positive labour-management relations and a good positive organisational culture and management programme within the workforce.