Maintaining a Healthy Building How's the Air in There?

It was January 1977 when the Center for Disease Control (CDC) first identified and isolated a previously unknown strain of bacteria found breeding in the cooling tower of a hotel air conditioning system. The bacteria, subsequently named Legionella, caused an outbreak of what is known as Legionnaires Disease, and the world first became aware of the concept of 'sick building syndrome.'

Thirty-four people died from that particular 1977 outbreak, and an additional 200 people required treatment. A new industry sprang up worldwide to identify, isolate, and remove the cause/s when a home, office or building was diagnosed with Sick Building Syndrome or Building-Related Illness (BRI).

Obtaining a True Diagnosis

It's important to realize that Sick Building Syndrome is not a specific disease; it's a constellation of several clinically recognizable features when symptoms appear in a significant number of people occupying a particular building. The term is used to describe situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear linked to their time spent in the building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified. Building Related Illness (BRI) is the term used by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) when symptoms of a diagnosable illness are identified and can be attributed directly to airborne building contaminants. Using these criteria, the Legionnaires Disease outbreak in '77 was actually a Building Related Illness, and not Sick Building Syndrome.

Laureen Burton, a chemical toxicologist with the EPA in Washington D.C., helps explain the difference between SBS and BRI. “In general BRI symptoms are easier to define clinically than SBS, and appear linked to the time spent in a building. The illness can often be identified as directly attributed to building contaminants.” Burton points out the most common factors contributing to indoor environmental quality (IEQ) are not new. “Most IEQ problems result from inadequate ventilation, temperature, humidity and even lighting problems.” Chemical contaminates from indoor sources pose additional problems when there is misuse, improper installation, or just poor maintenance of products and appliances. Excess moisture indoors is a problem in itself, and when combined with other factors, it may complicate a speedy resolution.

Lance Eisen, chief of operations with the National Organization of Remediators and Mold Inspectors (NORMI), notes weather, climate, and even local economic conditions can have an impact on conditions in a building. “Some of the conditions contributing to SBS are temperature, humidity, particulate, chemical, biological, radiological, comfort, and electromagnetic, he states. Also any combination is possible.”


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