Sick building syndrome sounds like a bit of a joke, but notwithstanding the slightly ridiculous name it can be a serious problem for building managers and company executives. Sick building syndrome is a loose term that is applied when the people living or working in a building begin to suffer from a range of ailments, usually with an underlying respiratory theme: constant colds, flu-like symptoms, allergies and sensitivities, dizziness and nausea and increased incidents of asthmatic attacks.

Initially reports and claims of being made ill by the building in which they worked or lived was dismissed by landlords and employers as attempts to reduce rent or increase wages, but as more people fell ill, authorities were forced to step in and check out the buildings in question.

What they discovered was that all the buildings in which people were falling ill had something very significant in common: they were all, without fail, poorly ventilated. In nearly all cases, improving the building’s air conditioning and ventilation/ air circulation systems saw a dramatic improvement in the health of the occupants.

Bizarrely, it is possible that the (nearly global) smoking ban in public places led to a worsening in sick building syndrome: smokers and those around them tended to open windows, or run a fan, in order to disperse the unsavoury cloud of smoke hanging over the office. This may have been enough to circulate the stale, stagnant air that can cause illness away from desks, drawing in fresh outside air. Modern buildings are often built with sealed windows, especially at higher levels where opening windows are considered to be something of a health and safety risk. This means that old stale air can be trapped inside a building, encouraging the growth of mould and mildew, trapping dust and allergens and slowly but steadily weakening the health of the building occupants.

The main solution to sick building syndrome is to ensure that the air conditioning/ heating system is modern, fully functional and up-to-specification for the building and the number of occupants. Contractors looking to build new office or housing blocks should consider the issue of air flow controls right from the beginning of the process: building in a good air con system from the first brick laid. Building owners looking to upgrade their air conditioning would be wise to take out an air conditioning maintenance schedule to install and then maintain their air flow system: staying on top of the air quality is infinitely better than leaving it until there is a breakdown or major outbreak of illness on the premises!

If you are in the building trade or manage several properties, make sure that you know how good the air quality in your buildings is: being able to breathe is a basic requirement for life, not only for people and animals but even for plants and fungi! Good air quality results in happy productive employees or tenants, and results in positive business growth all round!