Sick building syndrome is generally caused by two things. One is poor ventilation. The other is toxic building materials, floor, wall and window coverings, furniture and electronics. A third possible culprit is the radiation and electro-magnetic waves emanating from all the electronic equipment found within offices. This last source perhaps needs more serious consideration and study.
The solutions to dealing with sick building syndrome fall into two categories: dealing with the air that people breathe within sick buildings, and dealing with the sources of the “disease”. The first involves designing new mechanical air handling systems, or redesigning old ones to screen out the toxic particles and gases flying about in buildings. This may mean incorporating showers or scrubbers to filter out particles and gases more effectively than systems do today. Sometimes building managers like to cut back on the amount of fresh air circulating within buildings to save on heating and cooling bills. This is understandable. But the fewer air changes, the sicker the building. If this is to be done, mechanical engineers and air handling system designers need to design more efficient systems to purify the air within sealed buildings.
Some creative designers have started incorporating natural filters to office settings by providing abundant living plant life. This may introduce some new maintenance issues, but it certainly is a nice way to partially deal with sick building syndrome. It does not address the dust problem but it does deal with some of the toxic gases and provide a source of daily oxygen in a pleasant manner.
The second solution to the problem is striking at its source. This is not quite as easy because existing buildings are filled with synthetic carpeting, press-board furniture, and all sorts of plastics, performing functions that range from storing garbage to housing computers and monitors. Over time all synthetic materials start to weaken and break down chemically. In the process they release gases and dust that eventually wind up in people’s lungs. These visible and invisible particles can cause asthmatic symptoms, or worse over time.
The only way to eliminate the sources of dust and gases is to start building with different materials and to replace existing carpeting and other sources of the disease before they start to rapidly deteriorate. Given the extent of the problem it may be impractical to eliminate all sources, but designers need to at least start asking manufacturers questions and checking the building products they specify for their potential toxicity. The road to clean air through reinvestment in new building products may be a long one but we need to start now.
So far we’ve talked about office buildings, but residential buildings can develop sick building syndrome as well. Especially modern homes and residential high rises that are designed with barriers to seal in air and vapor can start to exhibit the same symptoms as office buildings. Hitherto both homes and higher density residential buildings were designed in such a way that they allowed for relatively high air leakage. With greater emphasis on energy conservation, these buildings too are built much tighter and can bottle up toxic and stale air.
Not as many people share the air within homes as they do within work places, but proper consideration should also be given for air ventilation and circulation. At times the problem can be more pronounced in the winter season as many residential high-rises have water heating and cooling systems that do not circulate the air at all. Ventilation is provided through the pressurization systems that force air from corridors into residential units, then out of windows and kitchen and bathroom vents.
The solution to the problem within homes can be as simple as opening a window for a time. But owners and tenants who experience breathing problems should take note of things such as carpeting and the ventilation systems within their homes. Hardwood flooring as the alternative to synthetic carpeting is a start, but unfortunately there are many other toxic substances in our interior environments. Cleaning solutions, improperly sealed and stored gas cans, even “air fresheners” can contribute to sick building syndrome. One sure way to ward off the symptoms of course is to get outdoors for a walk, do the shopping or anything else for at least an hour each day, rain or shine.