How a Commercial HVAC System Can Prevent Sick Building Syndrome

How a Commercial HVAC System Can Prevent Sick Building Syndrome

Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) is a descriptor of a situation in which occupants of a building experience similar health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in the building but without any identifiable cause or specific illness. Though once an illness is identified and can be attributed to a building’s contaminants, it’s called a Building Related Illness.

Routine maintenance of HVAC systems or ensuring the system is providing an adequate ventilation rate can go a long way toward preventing Sick Building Syndrome.

What Are the Symptoms of Sick Building Syndrome?

One kind of SBS is byssinosis, an occupational lung disease that most commonly affects those working in textile production. Symptoms include chest tightness, a cough, wheezing, and shortness of breath. The symptoms are worse near the beginning of the work week as symptoms are less severe while the worker is away from the workplace, which is why it’s also called Monday fever.

Overall, indicators of SBS can include occupants complaining about various acute discomforts (headaches; eye, nose, or throat irritation; cough, itchy or dry skin; nausea or dizziness, fatigue, odor sensitivity). Many of the occupants will report relief from their symptoms once they leave the building. The cause of the symptoms is unknown.

It’s possible the symptoms may result from other sources than the building. The causes could be from a sickness contracted outside the building, allergies, job-related stress, or many other factors. Regardless, indoor air quality problems can cause or exacerbate symptoms.

What Causes Building-Related Illness?

Many buildings built in the 1970s and 1980s were affected by the oil embargo of 1973 when national conservation measures allowed for the reduction of the amount of outdoor air required for each building occupant. It was observed in many cases that this reduction was found to be inadequate to maintain the comfort and overall health of occupants. The American Society of Heating Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has revised ventilation standards depending on the activities of the space.

Volatile Organic Compounds can also be a cause of a sick building. Various substances like adhesives, upholstery, manufactured wood products, cleaning agents, various pesticides, or carpeting can all potentially emit VOCs. Environmental tobacco smoke is a contributor to high levels of VOCs. Some of these organic compounds in high concentrations can cause chronic and acute health effects.

Of course, there’s also the chance of biological contaminants being the cause in the form of bacteria, molds, pollen, or viruses. These things can breed in stagnant water that accumulates in ducts and drain pans, in ceiling tiles, carpeting, or insulation. Insects and bird droppings can also become sources of biological contaminants.

Any of these factors may be at play, potentially working together to create the complaints of building occupants. It is possible, even after a thorough building inspection, that the specific source may remain unknown.

Concerned About Sick Building Syndrome? Call Henick-Lane.

At Henick-Lane, we are experts in all aspects of commercial HVAC, including indoor air quality and preventing SBS. We have more than half a century of experience serving New York area high-rises, commercial buildings, and facilities. Contact us online to request a consultation (or call 718-768-7277or email: to arrange an indoor air quality assessment. We look forward to hearing from you.