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Can Buildings Make Us Sick?

A common but under-estimated ailment shared by many is the inability to focus.

Whether whittling away the hours at the office or tucked away in your home, a nagging distraction of unidentifiable origins debilitates your daily tasks and rituals.

You think it could be attributed to a single source; the lulling hum of the air-conditioner, the low clatter of voices in the other room, perhaps even the buzzing of electronics you employ to conduct your work.

Yet, should you remove yourself to another crevice of the building, away from any single commotion, you remain in relatively the same state as the moment before. It seems no matter what you do, you are unable to concentrate. Even when you are accompanied only by silence; for your thoughts remain muddled.

Emerging outside, if you have mind or means to do so, your anxiety dissipates – thoughts concise and relaxed – undetected until you return inside.

This may be due to what is known as “Sick Building Syndrome” (SBS). Not to be confused with “Building Related Illness” (BRI).

The difference, as defined by the EPA, is that SBS describes situations in which building occupants experience symptoms of non-specific cause or illness, thought to be related to time spent within the building; whereas the effects of BRI can be clinically defined. Common causes of SBS can be found in the bacteria embedded in your walls and carpet, along with freely floating VOCs released from nearly every orifice of the house – from chemical finishes and coatings,  to morning spritz of hairspray – even from burning fire wood.

But the main instigator of SBS is poor ventilation.

SBS is often manifested through both physical and psychological symptoms – nausea and dizziness, memory loss, confusion, asthma, eye, skin, and throat irritation, and dry, itchy skin.  In addition to the home or office, this can be very problematic at schools, where difficulty concentrating can obstruct a student’s development, as their ability to focus on the task at hand is compromised.

If you believe yourself an occupant of a building with SBS, you can best remedy the situation by removing the pollution source and improving ventilation. The first can be done through regular maintenance of HVAC systems, routine cleaning and filtration.

To improve ventilation, HVAC systems should be operated at or above its design standard.

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