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.
You walk into Home Depot or Lowe's to pick up a lightbulb. Instead, you
leave with some new flooring, a circular saw, a framing square, and big ideas
about re-tiling your kitchen.
The problem? You've never done anything more than change a lightbulb by
Growing numbers of Americans are tackling do-it-yourself home improvement
projects that once might have been left to professionals. One reason for the
shift: Stores like Home Depot, along with TV shows on networks like HGTV or the
"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"