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Written By: Raymond M. Pirnat, Jr., A.S., CMC, CSA
January 22, 2019, Updated July 2019
I Feel Fine When Not At Work! Can A Building Make You Sick?
Of course, it’s the office what else could it be. A typical complaint environmental professionals hear is “When I’m away from the office I feel fine, my office makes me sick”. When I get to work I’m OK for a little while and within a couple of hours I feel miserable, my throat feels scratchy, my eyes are watery, and I can’t breathe. Once I’m away for a little while I feel fine again and it’s only when I’m in the office that I feel sick. Obviously, it’s the office, right?” Can a building make you sick?
Why Just At Work?
Yes, no or something entirely unrelated, who would know. This is a question asked in many HR (Human Resources) Departments every day in many building office workplaces. The answers are not always cut and dried. To say there is a multitude of factors that make us feel the way we do is an understatement! As environmental professionals dealing with indoor air quality issues, our fundamental job is to ascertain if the air within the workplace is causing any adverse effects.
Finding the Cause!
There is no magic test or no one way to determine exactly what is the cause of an associate’s health condition is without knowing the answers to a number of questions. How then do HR Departments address associates concerns? The first step, of course, is to call the professionals (i.e.) environmental professionals. The EP (environmental professional) has the education, training, and tools to determine if there is an existing environmental condition that is contributing to the adverse health effects experienced by one or more associates. First, as an environmental professional, every health concern we receive from a potential client is a valid health concern. Whether there is cause for justification or not, we as environmental professionals, cannot understate this emphasis. If an associate feels sick in their workplace, they will not be able to perform at their true potential.
Where Is It Coming From?
During an initial phone conversation or e-mail request, we as EPs often try to get some history of what the building’s environment is like. The most common complaint(s) of adverse health conditions are old vs. new building, current or past known issues such as water leaks, odors or re-occurring issues. Very often we will initially recommend an indoor air quality survey. Indoor air quality surveys are a useful tool to determine current environmental conditions.
The Usual Suspects
A typical indoor air quality survey will address conditions such as temperature, relative humidity, CO2 (carbon dioxide) and CO (carbon monoxide) levels. These environmental conditions can have effects on human comfort). These types of tests can often give the EP valuable information such as does the office have adequate ventilation?
(Elevated CO2 levels are an indication of poor ventilation). When levels of CO2 rise and there is less fresh air, it can cause headaches, restlessness, drowsiness and more. High levels are directly correlated to low productivity, high sick leave, and infectious disease transmission, making this a crucial concern in office settings. In many modern office buildings, windows are no longer able to be opened limiting the amount of fresh air that is introduced into the office space is limited to passive ventilation (air coming in through doors opened to the outdoors) and the building’s ventilation system. Building ventilation systems are recommended to have a minimum of 20% outdoor air being introduced; however, there is no mandatory regulation to maintain that level. High humidity levels can give mold spores an ideal environment for growth provided a food source such as the paper on the back of a sheetrock wall, low humidity levels can also cause itchy watery eyes and skin irritation.
In addition to testing for these comfort parameters, the EP will often collect air samples to determine the number of microbial spores in the office air when compared to outdoors or other reference location. Currently there are no regulations for the amount of microbial (mold) spores that are present in indoor spaces occupied by workers, however, the scientific community has made recommendations that state the type of microbial spores found inside a workspace should be less in concentration than the outdoors and similar in species types. Air sampling for indoor air quality can identify conditions that may impact the health effects of individuals. A common type of air sample that allows for quick analysis is called Spore Trap Analysis. This method uses a cassette collecting airborne fungal spores and structures (e.g., conidiophores and hyphal fragments) on a sticky surface applied to a glass slide embedded in the cassette. Results are expressed as fungal spores sometimes structures) per cubic meter of air. This method allows for quick laboratory analysis (typically within 48-72 hours). While this method is quick, there is a downside. Spore trap analysis cannot differentiate between a viable and non-viable spore. (Non-viable is the term used to describe dead mold spores and hyphal (branch) fragments. Non-viable mold air sampling counts ALL mold spores, making no distinction between dead and living mold spores. Both viable and non-viable mold particles can adversely affect individuals. Viable mold spores, when subjected to optimum growth conditions, will sporulate (grow). Viable mold, when disturbed by physical forces, can release many spores into the air.
Another benefit of this “Spore Trap” sample is that forensic analysis can be performed on all the particulate matter—not just mold—such as soot, skin cells, dust mites, and other insects and particles any or all of which can contribute to adverse health effects.
The experienced EP looks at many factors in the building environment such as the existing HVAC system, adjacent buildings and types of businesses that may have an effect on incoming air. Again there is no magic test and sometimes we are left with more questions than answers. Testing can get expensive, There is a saying “given enough time, money, resources and effort, anything can be proved or disapproved.” In my experience, no business owner is willing to go out of business spending money on test after test without answers. In some instances, an associate may be having a reaction to another associate’s clothing, perfume, cologne… or just the stress of the work situation. There are too many unknowns to list. In some cases, the EP will recommend that the associate experiencing the adverse health effects see a board-certified allergist or if feasible relocate to another location in the building.
My Office Makes Me Sick! Help is Here
The bottom line is, very often the issues are easily explained (poor ventilation or an unbalanced system tends to be one of the most often found reasons for complaints). So the answer to is my office making me sick and can a building make you sick? Talk to an environmental professional first. We can help.
Our primary service areas for indoor air quality sampling 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, Fort Worth) TX, OK, DC, AR, we can service most other areas of the U.S. but with some added travel charges.