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Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) is an unexplained occurrence of workers becoming temporarily too ill to work or developing longer term conditions, such as building-related illnesses and multiple chemical sensitivities. Complaints may be localized to a room or certain area of a building or may occur throughout the building.
Sick building syndrome or SBS occurs when:
- Building occupants complain of symptoms of acute discomfort such as:
- Eye, nose or throat irritation
- Dry cough
- Dry or itchy skin
- Difficulty concentrating
- Sensitivity to odors
- Cause of symptoms is unknown
- Most symptoms resolve immediately after leaving building
Some estimates have shown that up to one-third of new and remodeled buildings may be the subject of complaints related to sick building syndrome. Over time, the problems may resolve but some may develop long-term problems. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates as many as 13.5 million lost workdays annually due to sick building syndrome.
Causes of Sick Building Syndrome
New carpeting or flooring installed in buildings can emit toxic fumes (a process called outgassing) from the hundreds of chemicals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are used to manufacture its fibers, backing and adhesives. Gases from molds and fungi can also create a sick building where many victims suffer.
Many larger offices use fiberglass-lined ductwork to control noise. Dirt can get trapped in the fibers and if a little moisture is added, it can create a hazardous mold garden or toxic building. Mold exposure symptoms can occur in smaller office spaces too.
Sick building syndrome can be caused or have contributing factors including:
- Inadequate ventilation
- Chemical contaminants from indoor sources
- Chemical contaminants from outdoor sources
- Biological contaminants
For many victims exposed, sick building syndrome can overload their immune systems to the point that they can no longer work. If the symptoms of SBS become chronic or if a specific cause is identified, the person may have developed “building related illness” or “multiple chemical sensitivity”.
A building-related illness generally requires a prolonged recovery time. Unfortunately, it may become a chronic problem for the victim even after removal or remediation of the building exposure that caused the illness.
Multiple Chemical Sensitivity
Multiple chemical sensitivity develops when sensitivity to chemicals grows into a widespread problem for the individual. Sensitivity may start with exposure to a single substance—like formaldehyde—for example. But then the illness may progress, and the person may become sensitive to wider range of chemicals.
As a result, the victim responds with symptoms of sensitivity to a number of chemicals and experiences serious limitation with activity. He or she may no longer be able walk down a grocery or hardware store’s aisle with household cleaners or fertilizers without being ill for days.
Sick Buildings Leave Workers with Few Options
In some cases, reporting symptoms to employers or building management will help to identify and alleviate problems through cleanup or remediation. In other cases, employers may ignore or deny problems and may label complaining workers as “difficult” or seek retribution. In some cases, workers have no choice but to seek compensation through the court systems.
In California, a judge and court employees sued Tulare County in March 2000, for allegedly negligently allowing mold growth in a courtroom, which caused hair loss, dizziness, vertigo, abdominal pain, respiratory distress, tinnitus, facial swelling and severe rashes.