Sick Building Syndrome for Beginners

The basics of Sick Building Syndrome, described in plain English

Sick Building Syndrome graphic.
Sick Building Syndrome: succinctly explained in a neat graphic by Iryna Stegniy (via Shutterstock).

From the late 1970s up to the around the early 1990s, there used to be a lot of stories about this condition. Known as Sick Building Syndrome, it was associated with poorly ventilated offices, educational establishments, and public buildings. Though SBS can affect older properties that are poorly ventilated, post-Second World War architecture took most of the flak in the world’s newspapers, and on TV and radio news bulletins.

The term, Sick Building Syndrome was coined by the World Health Organisation in 1986. It is a term used to describe a number of minor illnesses associated with the workplace environment. For example, a tight chest (typical of asthma sufferers); skin irritation; ear, nose, and throat complaints; abnormal tiredness; and nonspecific hypersensitivity reactions. It can be triggered by moist conditions in offices, exhaust fumes from office equipment, bodily functions, and mould.

It is often confused with building-related illnesses. The latter covers more severe illnesses (for example, Legionnaires’ Disease, which we covered in a previous post).

With today’s modern day workplaces having better ventilation systems, Sick Building Syndrome isn’t heard of as much today. Lighting installations, another cause of SBS, have improved thanks to workplace lighting systems imitating natural light. Another factor was smoking, illegal in public places since the 01 July 2007 (though banned voluntarily by employers before then). Till the 1990s, an ashtray was about as common as a typewriter on office desks.

How to prevent Sick Building Syndrome:

  • Add toxin absorbing plants to your workplace and public areas;
  • Get ST Maintenance Systems to install or maintain an air conditioning system;
  • Add controllable lighting: for example, dimmer switches;
  • Get your floors vacuumed, or vacuum your own floor with a HEPA filter vacuum cleaner.
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