Pat B., a web designer in upstate New York, didn't think much
of it when she got a sinus infection the first week at her new job. Two months
later, she got another one. Then the muscle cramping began. "I would try to
walk at lunch time and my hips would cramp so bad I had to go back," she
recalls. "As soon as I entered the building, it felt like the breath was
sucked out of me."
After batteries of tests, she went on a leave of absence and
the symptoms leveled off. When she returned, her throat started burning the
minute she stepped into the building.
Men rarely see Thomas J. Weida, MD, for medical tests without prodding from a wife or girlfriend. When they do show up, Weida jokes that he “can see the drag marks on the carpet.”
It’s amusing, of course. But it can quickly turn serious when a man ignores important symptoms. Weida says he knows of men who got away with ignoring chest pain for a couple of weeks. Eventually, though, they died of heart attacks.
"The ceiling tiles were moldy, everything was wet," she
says. "I could smell formaldehyde and so could one other person."
Eventually, Pat was diagnosed with interstitial lung disease, an ailment that
had already killed a young, athletic male co-worker. She is convinced the
building she worked in caused her illnesses.
Symptoms and Causes of Sick Building Syndrome
Actually, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and
Health (www.cdc.gov/niosh) prefers the
term "Indoor Air Quality." If 20% of the work force has symptoms --
including watering eyes; hoarseness; headaches; dry, itchy skin; dizziness;
nausea; heart palpitations; miscarriages; shortness of breath; nosebleeds;
chronic fatigue; mental fogginess; tremors; swelling of legs or ankles; and
cancer -- the building may be labeled a "sick building." The telling
factor is if the symptoms ease when workers are at home or on vacation.
The causes are many. In the 1970s, there was a movement amongst
builders and regulatory authorities to button-up buildings to save on fuels for
heating and air conditioning. Many buildings became virtually air-tight.
According to the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and
Air-Conditioning Engineers, some polluting factors include indoor combustion
(heaters, ranges, smoking) and buildup of carbon monoxide and inhalable
particles; volatile organic compounds such as benzene, styrene, and other
solvents; and airborne-allergens and pathogens, such as viruses, bacteria,
fungi, spores, and protozoans. Added to that are new building materials
(plywood, carpet glue) and fabrics (rugs, furniture) that "offgas"
Prevalence of These Complaints
Time was, complainers were dismissed as hypochondriacs and
neurotics, but companies and regulators are acknowledging now that the modern
office environment can be toxic.
In 1980, NIOSH got 150 internal environmental quality
complaints, 8% of total complaints. By 1990, 52% of complaints concerned
sick-making work environments.
Kenny Oldfield, CIH, a hazardous materials trainer at the
University of Alabama Birmingham Center for Labor Education and Research
(CLEAR), says the nature of the problem may be changing slightly. "We may
be seeing a decrease in offgassing," he says. "Just look in the paint
department at Home Depot -- you will find kids' paint and low vapor emission
paint. There is some indication this is being addressed."