Sick building syndrome: Are we doing enough?

The green building movement has opened up opportunities for companies to protect their employees from experiencing SBS symptoms

Published : 20 Feb 2021 09:12 PM | Updated : 21 Feb 2021 02:29 PM

Ananta Ahmed

According to the World Health Organization, up to 60 percent of new and remodeled buildings in Bangladesh are potential carriers of Sick building syndrome (SBS). Sick building syndrome (SBS) is a collection of factors that can negatively affect physical and mental health in several ways. 

The most common symptoms of SBS include headaches, coughing, sleepiness, sore throat, dry eyes, dizziness and itchy skin. Employees who spend eight hours a day in buildings that are not adequately maintained often report such symptoms. 

SBS symptoms commonly appear when employees return to the office after an extended break. To be able to combat sick building syndrome, it is vital to identify the factors that cause it.

Several factors can contribute to SBS, Let's have a quick look.

Poor Indoor Air Quality (IAQ): Poor indoor air quality (IAQ) is a major contributing factor to SBS. Indoor air quality refers to the standard of the conditioned air that circulates throughout buildings, and indoor air is the air we breathe throughout most of our lives. World Health Organization estimates that, on average, people spend as much as 90 percent of their time indoors.

Inadequate ventilation can lower the IAQ of a building and lead to SBS. Buildings that have inadequate HVAC systems may not distribute air effectively to building occupants. Office buildings should provide a range of between 15 and 60 cfm of outdoor air per person to properly ventilate the space and maintain a comfortable environment for workers. This level of ventilation combats the buildup of carbon dioxide, which results from building occupants.

Outside pollution: Along with inside sources of pollution, many harmful outside sources can impact the air quality of a building. If air intake vents are not placed in the correct location, outdoor pollutants such as exhaust can permeate throughout the building. Windows that are not properly sealed can also be entrance points for such harmful sources of pollution.

One incredibly harmful source of outside pollution is silica. Silica is a common mineral found in the earth’s crust. However, when it is pulverized, its particles become 100 times finer than a grain of sand. Reparable crystalline silica is created through activities such as construction and masonry. This airborne form of silica is toxic to humans and can cause silicosis, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and kidney disease.

Negative impact of SBS on the office environment: Sick building syndrome has the potential to lead to severe monetary losses for companies. Employees experiencing symptoms of SBS have been proven to be less productive and have higher rates of absenteeism than healthy employees.

Studies have shown by World Health Organization (WHO) that productivity losses of two percent result from the presence of such symptoms and loss of productivity equates to an annual loss of around $60 billion per year. Higher health-care insurance costs can also be attributed to SBS. To prevent injuries from SBS, intelligent businesses have taken a green approach both to building and renovating their facilities.

Ways to make our building Greener: The green building movement has offered a path forward for companies to prevent their employees from experiencing SBS symptoms. Several different green measures should be integrated to ensure a building’s condition does not negatively impact the health of occupants. Here are a few ways to make your building greener.

Increase ventilation rates: Increasing ventilation rates is one approach to improving the work environment, and installing operable windows is one way to accomplish this. Operable windows allow occupants to open windows so that outside air can be filtered within the building. To save energy, operable windows can be fitted with a switch to ensure HVAC systems turn off in that specific zone so as not to waste energy when the window is open. Increasing ventilation rates also helps to prevent carbon dioxide buildup.

If you’re worried about the cost of extra ventilation methods, studies have shown that revenue produced by higher productivity can offset the costs associated with increased ventilation.

Use low-volatile organic compound (VOC) emitting materials: Volatile Organic Compound (VOC)’s are a leading cause of SBS. Companies must make a concerted effort to avoid artificial building materials that emit high levels of VOCs. Using more sustainable products, such as, green cleaners helps to ensure that IAQ remains high. Although the initial cost of low-VOC items may be higher, it has been shown that gains achieved from creating a more comfortable work environment offset these costs.

Incorporate interior landscaping: A simple yet effective approach to improving conditions inside the building is to grow plants. Plants can improve IAQ levels and filter out carbon dioxide. Additionally, plants such as dracaena, help remove VOCs from the air. Interior landscaping can also reduce stress among employees.

Become LEED certified: A certification known as Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) was created to help organizations implement impactful green building solutions. 

The U.S. Green Building Council offers the LEED Certification and resources for companies on how to construct green buildings. In Bangladesh, 360 Total Solution Limited is the pioneer of Green Building which has already completed more than 200 projects. An accreditation from LEED signals that companies are taking a stand to work toward a more sustainable future.

Additionally, when you put these green methods to use in your building, you can create a healthy place for your employees to work and thrive.

Ananta Ahmed is an International Green Building Expert and a Faculty Member of US Green Building Council.