How Airborne Contaminants Contribute to Sick Building Syndrome

July 05, 2017

How Airborne Contaminants Contribute to Sick Building Syndrome

Sick Building Syndrome is a medical condition where the occupants of a building suffer from symptoms or a general feeling of being unwell without any known cause. Symptoms increase with time spent in the building and subside when time is spent away. The main complaints associated with Sick Building Syndrome are headaches, fatigue, dizziness, nausea, and eye, nose, and throat irritation.

Building and facilities managers should be motivated to protect the health of their building’s occupants. However, the potential financial losses that could result from Sick Building Syndrome are often a more pressing concern. If an office building or other place of business is housed in a “sick” building, there could be more sick days taken, loss of productivity, and low morale.

While the specific cause of Sick Building Syndrome may not be initially evident, airborne contaminants are usually the cause. There are two main types of airborne contaminants that contribute to Sick Building Syndrome.

  1. Biological Contaminants – Bacteria, mold, viruses, pollen and other living biological particles fall into this category.
  2. Chemical Contaminants – Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are the most common culprits in this category, although tobacco smoke or other chemical sources may be to blame.

These contaminants may come from a source outside of the affected building, but most often the source is within the building.

Biological Contaminants


Living organisms such as mold, bacteria, viruses, etc. or the byproducts of living organisms such animal dander and pest droppings, fall into this contaminant category. Often the result of high humidity or excess moisture, biological contaminants can run rampant in a building that has these conditions. Infestation by insects, birds, bats, or vermin can also be to blame for contributing to Sick Building Syndrome. These contaminants can accumulate in air ducts, carpeting, and insulation. The building’s industrial HVAC system can quickly distribute these contaminants through the entire building.

Chemical Contaminants


Chemical contaminants affect a building in vapor or gas-phase form. The molecules of these contaminants are often smaller than 0.003 microns and may come from both indoor and outdoor sources.

  1. Indoor Contaminants – Cleaning products and pesticides are common indoor contaminants. These products release potentially dangerous chemicals and VOCs which can be particularly problematic in a building that isn’t well-ventilated. Other surprising sources of VOCs include carpeting, electronics, wood products, lighting, paint, and adhesives.
  2. Outdoor Contaminants – Pollutants from outdoor sources can seep into a building through cracks, doors, windows, and vents. Car exhausts from nearby highways or garages can be a problem. Outdoor pesticides, factory emissions, urban waste, and smog can all make their way indoors and affect indoor air quality.

Effects of Contaminants on Building Occupants


Because there are so many possible sources of pollutants and endless combinations, the exact source of Sick Building Syndrome can be difficult to pinpoint. It is, however, worth doing some sleuthing to determine the root cause of the issue if a building’s occupants regularly suffer from the following symptoms:

  • Eyes, nose, and throat irritation
  • Chronic fatigue
  • General loss of energy
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Skin irritation
  • Infectious diseases
  • Frequent illness

All the symptoms on this list can be related to poor indoor air quality. Building and facilities managers should know the symptoms of Sick Building Syndrome and be ready and willing to act to correct a problem when it develops.

Corrective Measures Building Managers Can Take


Building managers can start with a “Healthy Building Checklist” to help them stay ahead of potential building problems. The following checklist can be completed in conjunction with a facility inspection.

  • Do building occupants complain about headaches, dizziness, skin irritation, or lethargy?
  • Is there an increase in employees taking time off due to illness?
  • Is there a visible amount of dirt or dust in the air?
  • Are there any unpleasant odors? (This includes musty odors, the smell of cleaners, or any other chemical smells)
  • Is there any mold or mildew visible on surfaces or within the HVAC system?


If you can answer yes to any of these questions it is time to act before a minor problem becomes a much larger and costly one. For more information and solution strategies, contact a building consultant. You may also want to consider employing high-quality air purifiers as a step to conquering the problem.


Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.