Sick Building Syndrome and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Working with our associated partner company Envelo, we can provide constant air monitoring and install air purifying solutions to organisations that approach us because their employees are reporting health problems that can be associated with a ‘diagnosis’ of Sick Building Syndrome. These symptoms include headaches, lethargy, and poor concentration. These problems are being reported at a higher-than-average frequency, leading to:

  • Reduced efficiency
  • Increased levels of sickness and absenteeism
  • Complaints about the workspaces they occupy

Sick Building Syndrome is not a recognised illness and the causes that give rise to such a diagnosis usually include physical and environmental factors. For example:

  • Poor ventilation in a building – natural ventilation and air conditioning systems.
  • Poor air quality in the surrounding external environment.
  • Inadequate cleaning regimes.
  • Workstation layout.
  • New and refurbished spaces.

The quality of the air in a building is a key contributor to the unpleasant health conditions and reduced productivity associated with Sick Building Syndrome cases.

What Are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), and Do They Cause Sick Building Syndrome?

Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs, are gases emitted into the air from products or processes. They include a variety of chemicals that can have short and long terms adverse effects on health. Some can cause cancer. They also react with other gases and form other air pollutants once airborne. They contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone. When released into the atmosphere, they react with nitrogen oxides (NOx) mainly emitted from vehicles and power plants to form ozone molecules which are fine particulates.

Ground-level ozone impacts human health and is the key pollutant that causes smog.
Because VOCs are common chemical contaminants found in the workplace, they can be an ongoing source of bad odours and are often attributed to Sick Building Syndrome. One of the reasons why is that concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors. Unfortunately, VOCs are a part of life.

VOCs can be reduced in a building with a combination of approaches including adding plants, having hard surface flooring, and using a good cleaner. However, one of the most effective ways to eliminate VOCs on an ongoing basis is to install air purifiers – something we cover in detail below. VOCs should not be ignored in the hope that they will go away after a good clean because often a good clean is not the answer to eradicating them.

How Dangerous Are Vocs To People In Office Buildings?

Many public and commercial buildings are key sources of VOCs. It has been estimated that the pollutant levels in commercial buildings are 2-5 times higher than outdoors. This concentration of VOCs can be harmful to human health and especially to people with respiratory conditions, skin conditions, and those suffering from fatigue (ME). Previous research (through ongoing VOC measurement and monitoring) has identified that VOC levels are almost two times higher during working hours than night-time. They are usually emitted at room temperature. You can see why VOCs are associated with Sick Building Syndrome, especially when VOC levels exceed 3.0 mg/m3.

  • New and refurbished buildings emit higher levels of pollutants due to the phenomenon of off-gassing. New materials, paints, furniture, and carpets can emit VOCs that are considered extremely hazardous as can the temperature of the building, its humidity, and the presence of dust.
  • VOCs in the office and schools tend to be found in air fresheners, carpets, glues, markers, photocopiers, printers, and furniture.
  • Add to these the human activities such as cooking indoors, talking in small areas, even external smoking areas and VOCs can be present in a building and at alarming levels.

How Do People Suffer When The Indoor Air Quality Caused By Vocs Is Poor?

Poor quality of air is directly linked to poor health and absenteeism. Symptoms can include:

  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Eye irritation
  • Lack of concentration
  • Respiratory problems – wheeziness to exacerbation of asthma symptoms.
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness

Depending on the level of exposure.

Reducing VOCs in any building is crucial to protect the people frequenting it. Much has been written and said recently about the importance of increasing ventilation within a building to combat the spread of viruses, but this can worsen the air quality inside the building if the air outside is polluted.

Poor air quality is generally attributed to one or more of the following:

  • Low or high humidity
  • Chemical pollutants e.g.: ozone, VOCs from furnishings and building materials; dust particles in the atmosphere.
  • Poorly maintained air conditioning creating problems with ventilation
  • Poor washroom/restroom hygiene and cleaning practises intensify problems through an increase in bacteria and dust.
  • New and cleaned furnishings releasing chemical pollutants.

In the ideal world, the ventilation system should dilute and remove airborne impurities and pollutants and prevent stagnation and draught. Where natural ventilation – the simple act of opening a window – is not available, or in doing so more pollutants would enter the building due to the poor air quality outside, the air conditioning should in theory help in the maintenance of well-being in the workplace. But in many buildings, the air con upon recording displays unacceptable levels of pollutants and chemicals.

Installing Air Purifiers Has Never Been More Important

With more people and pupils now returning to their workplace and schools after several months of being predominantly home-based, it is more important than ever that they return to a space where the air they breathe supports their well-being so they can perform at the highest levels.

Monitoring and purifying the air every minute of every day to kill VOCs and remove all viruses plays a vital role in reducing absenteeism due to avoidable ill-health whilst contributing significantly to positive well-being and increased productivity.

If you are concerned about Sick Building Syndrome or would like to discuss having the air in your building monitored so that you are aware of the scale and nature of any contaminants including viruses and VOCs, please contact us to arrange an initial survey.