It sounds like a fringe conspiracy theory or an episode of your favorite sci-fi show, but Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) is a very real phenomenon that caused some hysteria in the media a few decades ago. The term was first coined in the mid-1980s by the World Health Organization. At the time, health researchers noted how residents of some newly built apartment and office complexes were experiencing strange, unexplainable symptoms en masse.
When Is Something Defined As SBS?
There are three important criteria to establish before something can be investigated as an SBS episode.
First, various symptoms (e.g. nausea, irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, mental fatigue, headaches, skin irritation, dizziness) must be present in multiple people who occupy a building.
Second, these symptoms must be present/worsened when the individuals are in the building, and gradually become better or disappear with time away from the building.
Third, for it to truly be SBS, no other apparent cause for the symptoms can be found — not at first, at least.
What’s Actually Happening Here?
All kinds of buildings were affected by the SBS mania. Old, new, residential, commercial… people were scratching their heads. The probable causes were eventually pinned down, and now we can avoid those mistakes that likely caused SBS.
First of all, mold could have been a culprit in buildings that were made poorly or not maintained. Second, it’s theorized that some SBS symptoms can come from poor airflow in those new buildings from the 70s and 80s. When builders looked at ventilation and tried to improve indoor quality through their designs, SBS symptoms lessened.
One of the saddest reasons that SBS happens? HVAC repair has been neglected. For HVAC systems to run at optimum efficiency, they should be inspected at least twice a year. Routine cleanings are important as well. HVAC service companies heard about the SBS instances resulting from neglected HVAC repair and shook their heads in dismay. This is why we stress practical maintenance. Air quality is so important to your health, and your HVAC can only do its part when it’s cleaned and maintained.
Claims of SBS are not as prevalent today, so we seemingly did a good job designing more effective airflow in buildings and pushing for regular HVAC maintenance. Now that you know the basics, keep a lookout for the occasional claim of SBS and see if you can debunk the cause yourself.