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Written by Robert E. Sheriff, MS, CIH, CSP, President and Henry P. Shotwell, Ph.D., CIH, Vice-President
October 1, 2018, Updated April 2019
Is Office Environment Related To Office Illnesses?
Everyone is sick but do they all have the same symptoms? Headaches, flu, itchy skin, sore throats, asthma, COPD, cancer, appendicitis! That’s very important! It’s unlikely if the symptoms are different. If everyone has sore throats or upper respiratory irritation then it may be the building such as low humidity. Usually, the symptoms are not the same; headaches, allergies, skin rash, flu, and appendicitis. As we learn more about illnesses, we find that most viral and bacterial illnesses are due to direct human contact—people passing viruses or bacteria directly to one another—mostly through sneezes, door handles, shared pens and papers, shaking hands, bathroom surfaces, hugs, and kisses.
The office may be the locale of this exchange but not the cause. We are constantly learning more about how specific diseases are transmitted.
Energy Efficiency In the Office
Headaches, dry skin, burning eyes, and sore throats can be the result of low humidity—most often during cold weather where the outdoor humidity is low and when the air is brought indoors and heated, the relative humidity is lower. At 30% or less relative humidity, people can experience dry eyes, itchy skin, sore throats, and upper respiratory irritation. Closing up doors and windows and reduce or eliminate outside air reduces humidity, allows for recirculation of microorganisms, and anything else in the air that could cause sickness or irritation. Promoting energy efficiency by reducing or eliminating outside air in office buildings resulted in what we now refer to as, “Sick Building Syndrome”—a condition where occupants of a building experience acute health and comfort effects but nothing specific can be identified.
Office Air Quality and Cancer
Cancers among an office group is a very complex issue and cannot be addressed in any great detail in this discussion. However, some things related to cancer within a workgroup are apparent. Most people feel the term “cancer” is a single disease—it is not! For example, in one year in an office, there was one breast cancer, one leukemia, one lung cancer, one bladder cancer and two pancreatic cancers among 250 employees. What’s important to recognize is that all these cancers can cause great concern in an office population, but none of these are known to be caused by the same source. Most types of cancers are unique and have possible causes—some genetic, some environmental, some lifestyle. Environmental health and occupational health (industrial hygiene) experts have a good grasp of the type of cancers caused by certain chemicals such as benzene which causes acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), certain solvents causing liver cancer, asbestos causing mesothelioma and smoking causing lung cancer.
Usually, a cluster of cancer cases in an office turns out NOT be to a single cancer or a single cause.
A variety of studies are going on to investigate what role a building, its environment, its air handling system and the activities that can have an effect on transmitting disease, discomfort and even reduce productivity.
OSHA has existed for over 40 years but their focus has always been the effect of specific agents (noise, chemicals, dust, and radiation) to workers handling those regulated substances. The office or public building or multi-unit tenant building doesn’t have specific agents affecting a select group.
Office illnesses should be investigated and the office air quality environment tested to determine if this office is truly the cause of everyone’s sickness or discomfort. At Atlantic Environmental we specialize in indoor office air quality testing and sampling. Contact us today to get help or learn more.
Our primary service areas for Indoor Air Quality Services are: NJ, NY, NYC, PA, CT, DE, (Boston) MA, RI, Wash DC, WI, MD, MI, (Chicago) IL, VA, IN, (Atlanta) GA, AL, NC, SC, TN, (Dallas, Ft Worth) TX, OK, DC, AR, we can service most other areas of the U.S. but with some added travel charges.