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Sick Building Syndrome: Acute Illness among Office Workers—The Role of Building Ventilation, Airborne Contaminants and Work Stress

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Outbreaks of acute illness among office workers have been reported with increasing frequency during the past 10–15 years. In the majority of cases, hazardous levels of airborne contaminants have not been found. Generally, health complaints have involved mucous membrane and respiratory tract irritation and nonspecific symptoms such as headache and fatigue. Except for rare examples of hypersensitivity pneumonitis related to microbiologic antigens, there have been no reports of serious morbidity or permanent sequelae. However, the anxiety, lost work time, decreased productivity and resources spent in investigating complaints has been substantial. NIOSH has reported on 446 Health Hazards Evaluations that were done in response to indoor air complaints. This data base is the source of most of the published accounts of building-related illness. Their results are summarized here with a discussion of common pollutants (tobacco smoke, formaldehyde, other organic volatiles), and the limitations of the available industrial hygiene and epidemiologic data. There has been one large scale epidemiologic survey of symptoms among office workers. The results associate risk of symptoms to building design and characteristics of the heating/air-conditioning systems, consistent with the NIOSH experience. Building construction since the 1970s has utilized energy conservation measures such as improved insulation, reduced air exchange, and construction without opening windows. These buildings are considered "airtight" and are commonly involved in episodes of building-associated illness in which no specific etiologic agent can be identified. After increasing the percentage of air exchange or correcting specific deficiencies found in the heating/air-conditioning systems, the health complaints often resolve, hence, the term "tight building syndrome" or "sick building syndrome." The importance of social and psychologic factors in the pathogenesis of building-related illness is discussed, and the need for careful communication between workers, management, and public health investigators is stressed. A better understanding of the etiology of sick building syndrome will facilitate the design of preventative interventions and avoid escalation of trivial problems while insuring that hazardous conditions are not overlooked.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: May 1, 1990

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  • Allergy and Asthma Proceedings is a peer reviewed publication dedicated to distributing timely scientific research regarding advancements in the knowledge and practice of allergy, asthma and immunology. Its primary readership consists of allergists and pulmonologists.

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    The journal is indexed in Thomson Reuters Web of Science and Science Citation Index Expanded, plus the National Library of Medicine's PubMed service.
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