Most people spend the greater part of their day indoors in the U.S., even more so when the weather is too hot or too cold to go outdoors. Whether at work or school, at a store, or the gym, Americans spend hours on end breathing indoor air—and it’s making them sick. Could your building be making occupants sick?
In the age of COVID-19, the answer is clear. The airborne illness has made common indoor spaces potential risk factors for disease transmission, necessitating health and safety protocols like social distancing and proper building ventilation.
But COVID-19 isn’t the only thing that can affect the health and safety of building occupants. Major health organizations in the U.S.—including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—have long recognized sick building syndrome (or SBS) as an acute health condition.
Keep reading to learn what SBS is, how to identify it, and—most importantly—how to prevent it by creating a cleaner, safer, and healthier environment for your employees, customers, and guests.
What is Sick Building Syndrome?
Sick building syndrome, or SBS, describes a range of negative health effects and discomfort associated with spending time inside of a building with poor indoor air quality. The symptoms link to a specific indoor space—whether the whole building or only certain areas—and usually improve when a person leaves that space. Also, with SBS, there’s no other specific illness or single cause that the symptoms are attributed.
How to Identify Sick Building Syndrome?
The symptoms of sick building syndrome can be vague and mimic other ailments like allergies, colds, or even general stress and anxiety. A key indicator of SBS is that these symptoms often go away or improve significantly shortly after leaving the problematic area. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), common symptoms of SBS include:
- Eye, nose, and/or throat irritation
- Dry, itchy skin
- Dry cough
- Dizziness and nausea
- Fatigue and difficulty concentrating
Whether or not building occupants have complained about any of these symptoms, it’s crucial to pay attention to your building’s indoor air quality. While these symptoms are often acute, poor indoor air quality can have long-term health implications for building occupants.
And it’s a bigger problem than you might think. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 30% of new and remodeled buildings experienced air quality issues. To protect the health and safety of building occupants, all building managers should evaluate their current air quality and take steps to prevent sick building syndrome.
What are the Causes of SBS?
According to the EPA, the primary cause of SBS is poor indoor air quality (IAQ). Several factors play a role in IAQ, including:
- Poor ventilation: Lack of proper ventilation allows pathogens and irritants to concentrate to high levels, causing discomfort and illness. Besides, mold can more easily breed and accumulate in improperly ventilated areas. For more information, see 5 Ways Poor Indoor Air Ventilation Affects Health and Safety.
- Indoor Contaminants: Indoor contaminants can include cleaning agents, paint, adhesives, and other chemical compounds that emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Mold and bacteria growth are also common indoor contaminants that can make building occupants sick.
- Outdoor Contaminants: Building occupants bring in contaminants from the outdoors like dirt, dust, debris, and pollen. Vehicle exhaust fumes and tobacco smoke can also seep into the building and negatively affect indoor air quality.
As contaminants accumulate on surfaces (and especially in the carpets), the air quality deteriorates over time, and sick building syndrome symptoms can become more pronounced.
Sick Building Syndrome Prevention
There are many ways to prevent sick building syndrome, and they all address the source of the problem: indoor pollution.
1. Improve Ventilation
Improving ventilation is a critical step to improving air quality in the building. Proper ventilation has received a lot of attention recently, as it can help reduce the spread of COVID-19 in indoor areas. This is because effectively ventilating a space helps disperse droplets that carry the virus, making it less likely for building occupants to breathe in virus particles and get sick. The same principle applies to other indoor contaminants. Good airflow into and out of the building keeps contaminants from concentrating to levels that can make occupants feel unwell.
2. Use HEPA Filters
Use air purifiers to filter out airborne contaminants and vacuum carpets daily with a vacuum cleaner that uses a HEPA filter. Moreover, carpets are the #1 air filter in any building. They accumulate numerous contaminants daily—from dust settling to people tracking in debris from the outdoors. Without a HEPA filter, vacuuming kicks that back into the air—making the air quality worse.
3. Eliminate Harmful Contaminants at the Source
Many contaminants that contribute to indoor air pollution need to be addressed at their source. For example, if mold is identified, merely improving ventilation and air filtration will not fix the problem. The mold should be removed, and effective ventilation and humidification methods should be implemented to prevent future growth. In addition, consider limiting the use of air fresheners that mask odors and add more irritants into the air. Instead, choose environmentally friendly cleaning methods that safely eliminate the contaminants.
4. Maintain Cleaning Consistency & Thoroughness
Most importantly, reducing the risk of sick building syndrome isn’t a once and done solution. It requires consistent and thorough cleaning to maintain good indoor air quality, and daily vacuuming is key. While this might seem like an overwhelming task, there are automated solutions that can support thorough, high-quality cleaning with minimal additional effort and costs.
For example, Whiz, the commercial vacuum from SoftBank Robotics, cleans large carpeted spaces in half the time compared to manual vacuuming and uses HEPA filters to remove 99.97% of airborne particles. All you have to do is teach Whiz once, and from there, Whiz runs that same route on its own—maintaining pristine carpets day in and day out.
Create Safer, Healthier Indoor Environments
Preventing sick building syndrome is critical to ensuring a healthier, safer environment for your employees, customers, and guests. Contact SoftBank Robotics to learn how autonomous cleaning technology can bring your building’s health and safety to the next level.