Sick building syndrome in the COVID era

By Jules Murtha | Fact-checked by Jessica Wrubel
Published July 19, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Sick building syndrome (SBS) refers to the array of illnesses that arise in people who spend time in buildings—oftentimes, high-rise buildings—which may lack proper ventilation.

  • Patients who have SBS may experience dry skin, mucous membrane irritation, asthma, gastrointestinal issues, neurotoxic effects, and sensitivity to odors.

  • One study states that the COVID-19 pandemic impacted building professionals’ perspectives on occupant health, and future building designs will incorporate pandemic-related lessons.

There are many factors that affect a building’s design: access to sunlight, level of noise transmission, and the option to ventilate naturally are just a few.

During construction and operational phases, building professionals are expected to use materials and make decisions that will enhance occupant health, according to a study published by Building and Environment.[]

Despite these considerations, buildings can and do still pose dangers to human health. Clinicians can help patients manage sick building syndrome with preventive strategies.

What is sick building syndrome?

Sick building syndrome (SBS) is an umbrella term used to describe the illnesses that some patients experience as a result of occupying a building.

According to an article published by Office Buildings: Health, Safety and Environment, SBS covers a wide range of symptoms that can include mucous membrane irritation, asthma, dry skin, gastrointestinal trouble, and neurotoxic effects, among others.[]

The buildings responsible for these symptoms may lack proper ventilation. They could also be old, or have a high concentration of organic floor dust. Even carpets—which may create a cozy feel for those inside the building—can trap dust, which paves the way for mucosal irritation.

Additionally, fleecy surfaces, paper, and cardboard also show an association with SBS symptoms.

Prior to bearing a SBS diagnosis, patients may experience pre-sick building syndrome. Pre-SBS has been associated with condensation, moisture, musty odors, and deodorizers/fragrances in a building, as stated in a study published by Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine.[]

In this case, patients who experience mild symptoms and maintain prolonged exposure to these conditions may later develop a full-blown case of SBS.

It’s safe to say that research on occupant health in buildings is still in bloom, largely thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic—which may serve as a game-changer for building professionals.

SBS and COVID-19

The emergence of COVID-19 in the US forced individuals to spend much of their time indoors, presenting researchers with the opportunity to learn more about occupant health inside buildings.

Quarantining, for example, shed light on issues regarding adequate ventilation, which influences the risk of viral transmission. Other challenges concerning ideal layouts also surfaced, since COVID requires individuals to social distance while indoors.

The 2022 study published by Building and Environment looks at COVID’s impact on building professionals’ opinions of occupant health inside buildings.

After surveying 274 professionals, researchers found that nearly 75% of participants’ opinions were significantly changed by the pandemic. Over 66% of participants also felt that occupant health will be highly prioritized in the design, construction, and operation of future buildings because of the pandemic.

When asked about which building attributes would be likely to change the most, 21.22% of participants replied “ventilation systems,” which can make or break the virus’s ability to transmit via air droplets.

Professionals also emphasized the importance of less dense layouts, operable windows, and touch-free systems (like automatic doors and voice-activated elevators) in future building designs. These features are a product of pandemic-related considerations.

Treat and prevent SBS

While the future awaits buildings that take into account factors like COVID-19, you may be interested to know how to help patients manage SBS now.

For patients who exhibit asthmatic symptoms—which are often related to both indoor and outdoor air pollutants—you can rely on medication with steroids for optimal treatment, according to Office Buildings: Health, Safety and Environment.

But patients who have the ability to clean their inside spaces should do so regularly to prevent the development of SBS or pre-SBS. The authors of the article published by Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine elaborated on this.

“To prevent health hazards arising from indoor air and to enjoy a safe and healthy life, it is important to enlighten people and encourage them to regularly clean and ventilate their living spaces, in addition to planning healthy residential environments with mechanical ventilation systems,” the authors wrote, “as well as efficient natural ventilation to prevent air retention in buildings.”

Patients can further ease their own symptoms, according to an article published by the National Health Service (UK), by opening windows to increase ventilation, taking regular computer breaks, and getting outside frequently for fresh air.[]

What this means for you

SBS covers a list of ill health effects that some buildings have on humans. Buildings with poor ventilation systems, high concentrations of organic floor dust, and fleecy surfaces can contribute to SBS. Challenges regarding ventilation and layout came to light during the COVID-19 pandemic as a result of individuals spending more time indoors. Building professionals plan to address those challenges in the design and execution of future buildings. You can help patients with SBS manage their symptoms with preventive cleaning strategies.

Read Next: What COVID-19 can teach us about future pandemics (and why we should expect them)
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