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9 Keys to Avoiding Sick Building Syndrome (Study)

AidanAnthony MA, United States 0 Ratings 1 Discussions 0 Group posts

Posted by: AidanAnthony // Intern

Green Building, Healthy Buildings

Researchers from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health have compiled a guide for improved health in commercial buildings; they seek to address the causes of “Sick Building Syndrome” (SBS), a term coined in 1982 by the World Health Organization. The factors that they have addressed are the culmination of an effort to simplify a complex question; how do we make our buildings healthier?

The rationale behind SBS lies in prolonged exposure to a minute problem. The inherent qualities of a dirty, or relatively polluted building, may not affect an occupant’s health and productivity within the course of a few hours. However, over the course of months, a variety of factors have been proven to be detrimental to occupant well-being. 


According to the study, these are 9 key factors to the health of a building, residential or commercial:

  • Ventilation

    • Because we spend so much time indoors, humans (on average) are exposed to the majority of outdoor air pollution while indoors. Lower rates of ventilation cause pollutants to linger in a room for longer periods of time without passing through a filter.

    • Studies have demonstrated a link between poor ventilation and negatively impacted cognitive function in both schools and places of work.

    • In fact, an improved ventilation system is associated with an improvement in quality of work that is equivalent to a $6500 salary increase per employee--while only incurring a cost of $40 per employee.

    • Removing fine particulate matter is essential to respiratory health in a given commercial building or place of residence.

  • Air Quality

    • Air quality has been a sticking point for the environmental movement since the movement’s conception; in 2019, building occupants are still exposed to decreased air quality.

    • To combat this, it is necessary to build without the use of volatile and semi-volatile compounds (e.g. asbestos) in order to prevent long-term illnesses and short-term irritation of the eyes, nose and mouth.

    • Improved air quality across the U.S. has also been evaluated at $25-$150 billion in savings per year, as it increases productivity and cognitive function as well as health.

  • Thermal Health

    • Aside from major health scares such as deadly heat waves, the impact of thermal health is embedded in productivity. 

    • Humidity is emerging as an important factor in thermal health--we are less able to cool down by sweating an environment that is already saturated with moisture. Therefore, it is helpful to use ambient heating and cooling that is not related to building ventilation (which can conduct humidity into a building).

    • Nationwide, workers have reported that temperature and humidity are significant factors in their ability to work on any given day. This finding is supported by improved test scores in New York students on cool versus hot days.

  • Moisture

    • The greatest problem presented by high levels of moisture in a building is the potential for growth of mold. In fact, the article finds that 36 percent of homes in the United States suffer from mold or water damage, with that number more than doubling (85%) for commercial buildings.

    • Mold and mildew become progressively more irritating to the body over prolonged exposure--making it important to address leaks early.

    • Moisture can be combated by frequent inspections of HVAC and other building systems.

  • Dust and Pests

    • A perennial issue in many buildings, dust buildup is not inherently bad on its own. However, dust often acts as a repository for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and can become intermingled with allergens and toxins from pests.

    • A buildup of dust that contains insect and rodent allergens can become a cause of irritation, or even the impetus for a visit to the hospital.

    • The paper suggests using high efficiency filter vacuums and maintaining dry, clean buildings (entry points sealed up, trash removed, etc).

  • Safety and Security

    • This paper argues that lack of safety decreases one’s overall health and productivity in a given space, because the body engages in a small-scale “fight or flight” response, that cannot be remedied simply by time passing.

    • Instead, one must take steps towards one’s own safety before the fight or flight response subside.

    • Suggestions for improved security include replacing fire and carbon monoxide alarms, as well as installing an outdoor surveillance camera and having a well-practiced emergency plan.

  • Water Quality

    • Another pillar of the environmental movement, water quality is easy to point to for improvement.

    • In a modern building, the most relevant pollutants are both organic and inorganic in nature; lead can leach into water from old pipes, and legionella bacteria can develop in building with old, underused pipe systems (deal legs).

    • To prevent these pollutants from building up, regular water tests are mandatory. Beyond that, preventing water stagnation in pipes and regular inspections of plumbing systems can maintain good water quality in a building.

  • Noise

    • Largely dependent on environmental influences, noise has repercussions that extend beyond point-source hearing damage. Excessive noise (35b+) has been linked to hypertension, and the necessity to raise one’s voice above outside noise is associated with hoarseness, discomfort and less efficient communication.

    • Excessive ambient has the greatest influence on children under age 15, who are still developing listening skills.

    • Outside noise is difficult to prevent, but improved insulation and noise-cancelling materials can be used to make indoor spaces quieter. Indoors, it is important to cut down on machinery and equipment noises.

  • Lighting and Views

    • As researchers draw more concrete ties between quality of light and its effect on our circadian rhythms, it becomes clear that we need bright light during the day and a deep dark at night to maintain a healthy sleep cycle. 

    • School and places of work have been encouraged to provide more light with elements of blue, which stimulates cognitive function.

    • On the other hand, homeowners have been encouraged to cut blue light out of their home lighting to encourage regular sleep. 

    • These practices, combined with natural lighting in both commercial and residential buildings, are crucial to our respective sleep cycles. 


The implications from this study are clear; each and every one of us is affected by the health of the buildings which we occupy, and there is an area in every building upon which we can improve. These 9 key factors can help make our working and private lives healthier, and also more productive; why live in a sick building when you could live in a healthy one?

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