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Sick Building Syndrome

A Breath of Fresh Air

Most of us don’t think twice, or even realise we are breathing. On the whole the air we breathe is of a good quality and does not affect our health. In recent years though, issues around indoor air quality have become more publicised and better understood. It has been proven that poor indoor air quality can affect people’s wellbeing and cost businesses money – usually from lower worker productivity and higher absenteeism.

Sick Building Syndrome

The term ‘Sick Building Syndrome’ or SBS is a phrase used to cover a multitude of symptoms and potential issues. It was first coined in the 1970s to describe the mysterious reactions and symptoms that people were reporting. We now know that these symptoms are often linked to the indoor air quality in the building where the person works or lives.


Some common reactions to indoor air quality issues include lethargy, fatigue, headaches, dizziness, nausea, sneezing, sniffing, eye irritation and sensitivity to odours. Often there are a number of causes that are hard to pin down and identify. A key indicator that you may be suffering from SBS is if the symptoms ease once you have left the building.

Indoor Air Quality

Although the majority of indoor air pollution comes from within the building, there are some cases where pollutants find their way into the building from outside. Below are some of the main problems that can affect indoor air quality and cause people to feel unwell.

Inadequate Ventilation

Many properties are re-fitted and developed, but in some cases the ventilation system have not be updated along with the rest of the building. Inadequate ventilation, which may also occur if the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems do not effectively distribute air to people in the building, is thought to be an important factor in SBS. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recently revised its ventilation standards, stating a minimum of 10 Litres of ai

r per second, per person must be circulated in office spaces. NZ Building Code requires 10 Litres of air per second per person.

Carbon Dioxide – CO2

Inadequate ventilation and carbon dioxide go hand in hand. CO2 has long been used as an indicator of indoor air quality. High concentrations are indicative of a poorly ventilated building and can make occupants lethargic and drowsy.

Chemical Contaminants

Adhesives, carpeting, upholstery, manufactured wood products, copy machines, pesticides, and cleaning agents can all emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including formaldehyde. Research indicates that some VOCs can cause acute health damage in high concentrations. Low to moderate levels of multiple VOCs may also produce acute reactions in some sensitive people. The emission of VOC

s is generally highest in newly renovated or new buildings.

Microbial Organisms

Microbial organisms are everywhere and hum

ans constantly come into contact with them with no serious health effects. However some airborne microorganisms can have a detrimental effect on health – from serious diseases such as Legionnaires to allergic responses including sore throats; hair loss; wheezing; and eye and skin irritations. HVAC systems and occupied spaces in buildings can sometimes offer good conditions for the growth of toxic or allergenic particles.


The key to good indoor air quality is to take a preventative, rather than a reactionary approach. Some property companies now provide independent audits to check a building’s air quality. As well as focusing on issue prevention, it also means that building owners/managers, occupants, maintenance contractors and indoor air quality professionals are all working together to enhance air quality.

Airlab offer a range of services to monitor and assess indoor air quality. We can also offer professional advice on health and safety in the workplace. If you feel you have issues with your indoor air quality, contact the building maintenance company first. Together you can discuss how you feel your health is being affected and work together to assess the indoor air quality.

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