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Sick-Building Syndrome

Sick-Building Syndrome

WebMD Feature

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.

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"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" toxic fumes.

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."

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