Richard G. Petty, MD

Sick Building Syndrome

Sick building syndrome (SBS) was first recognized in 1982, and is a combination of symptoms associated with an individual’s place of work – most often an office building -though there have also been instances of SBS in residential buildings. A 1984 World Health Organization report into the syndrome suggested up to 30% of new and remodeled buildings around the world might be linked to symptoms of SBS.

Many symptoms have been associated with SBS, including:

  • Headache
  • Dry or itchy skin
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Irritation of the eyes nose or throat, sometimes with a dry coughs
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Difficulties in memory and concentration
  • Extreme sensitivity to smells or bright lights

For SBS to exist, these symptoms must disappear soon after the occupants go outside.

There have been many explanations for these symptoms, primarily related to environmental pollutants. But I have something to add to that list. Some time ago I spent a happy year working at the Charing Cross Hospital in London during which I made an odd observation. On days that I worked in the laboratory on the tenth floor, I would be exhausted by the middle of the day, while on days when I worked in the outpatient clinic in the basement, I could easily get through a 5 hour clinic without difficulty. I mentioned it to a neurophysiologist friend who told me something very interesting: it had been discovered that on days when the wind blew at 5-10 miles an hour, the building began to vibrate like a giant tuning fork, and that the vibration was at its worst between the tenth floor and the top of the hospital. The vibration was imperceptible to most people, but I clearly had the misfortune to be sensitive to it. Yet without this experience, I might never have known of the potential adverse effects of vibration of the human body.

I have been consulted by a number of corporations and government organizations that have had trouble with people getting sick in certain buildings. Until now we have thought that it was all environmental, and that it could be anything from vibration to poor ventilation, chemicals, molds and many things in between. So I was very surprised to see a report published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine from a first rate research group at University College London.

The British Inland Revenue Service demolished an entire 19-storey building in Bootle, Merseyside, after almost half of the employees had developed illnesses compatible with SBS. In a study published two and a half years ago, it was claimed that adding ultraviolet light to ventilation systems to kill microbes could vanquish the symptoms of SBS. But this new research suggests that the cure may actually be better management.

The new study included 4,052 civil service workers between the ages of 42 and 62 who were enrolled in a larger general health study. The men and women in the study worked at 44 different office buildings around London. The workers completed surveys designed to assess their general health and whether they had symptoms linked to SBS. They were also asked questions about the physical properties of the offices that they worked in and the stresses associated with their jobs.

As in earlier studies, women tended to have more symptoms associated with SBS than did men. Younger workers also had more of the symptoms than older workers. Almost one in five women and one in seven men reported five or more symptoms associated with sick building syndrome.

Now here was the surprise: the authors found little association between physical work environment and the symptoms. But there was a strong association between the symptoms and feelings of having high job demands and little support in the workplace. They also found that the more control people have over their workstation, the fewer symptoms were reported.

Though the findings fail to support "sick buildings" as a common cause of worker illness, the study should not be interpreted as meaning that the physical quality of the workplace is unimportant. It is most likely that we are dealing with a combination of physical and work related factors.

As I was reading the report and reviewing the rather vague but often quite severe symptoms, I was reminded of some recent work that I have been doing on burnout: I’ve just published an article about it. My interpretation of this study is that many cases of SBS are likely a form of burnout that is partially modulated by physical factors in the environment.

Technorati tags: , , , ,

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!

logo logo logo logo logo logo