The Impact of Sick Building Syndrome in Commercial Environments


Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) has long been a significant occupational hazard, especially in commercial environments such as offices and factories. The syndrome comprises of a number of non-specific symptoms of ill health that affect the frequent occupants of the building.

SBS is typically suspected when people who occupy a particular building, or space in a building, become unwell again and again. They may suffer from acute or chronic symptoms that appear to be linked directly to time spent in the building in question. Usually, most of the individuals suspected of suffering with SBS report a relief in their symptoms soon after leaving the premises.

Our wellbeing at work and the health of commercial environments is under scrutiny like never before due to the Covid 19 crises. For many businesses, employee safety has been catapulted to the top of the agenda and companies are having to look carefully at how healthy their workplaces really are.

The Covid-19 crisis is a good opportunity for commercial property owners to look at the impact their buildings are having on their staff. After all, a healthy workforce means a healthy business.

What is Sick Building Syndrome?

Sick Building Syndrome was first identified in the 1970s and it is thought to occur due to chemical and biological contaminants that are present impacting the health of those on the premises. Even though it has a definition, it has no single defined cause apart from the occupants of the building being subject to symptoms that develop when they are present but go away when they leave.

Much like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) – it is a condition that is primary diagnosed by the presence of a range of symptoms rather than the presence of a causative pathogen or chemical. As such its existence as a defined medical condition is somewhat controversial.

Regardless of the arguments that exist around the classification of the condition itself, the suffering these symptoms cause is very real as is the impact on businesses of the working days lost to it.

What is the cost of Sick Building Syndrome to businesses?

While many business owners have heard of Sick Building Syndrome, they may not have considered the impact the condition can have on the productivity of staff and ultimately profits.

Research shows that maintaining a healthy environment is a major factor in terms of maintaining wellbeing in the office and studies have proven that high rates of Sick Building Syndrome reduce business productivity and efficiency.

This is due to the physical symptoms that the syndrome causes, including drowsiness, high levels of fatigue and lack of concentration. It’s no surprise that workers are less productive in these environments and are also more likely to require time off work due to ill health. 

As well as the impact on workforce, Sick Building Syndrome can also have huge financial consequences on a businesses’ profit margins. Recent research suggests that Sick Building Syndrome is already costing US businesses up to $58bn a year in illness-related absenteeism, and that a $200bn a year is being lost in profits as a direct result of poor air quality.

There’s also evidence to suggest a drive for clean air is a smart investment for businesses. The financial benefits to be had from making ventilation improvements is up to 17 times greater than the initial investment in the technology, according to research from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

What are the causes of Sick Building Syndrome?

There isn’t one singular cause of Sick Building Syndrome. Rather, there are a range of factors internal and external to a commercial property that could increase the risk of Sick Building Syndrome – from common pollutants such as carbon monoxide entering from outside, or from internal contamination due to mould or asbestos, or the presence of volatile organic compounds that are released from cleaning products or other chemicals used in the day to day working of the business.

More often than not, Sick Building Syndrome is down to a combination of various different factors. For many business spaces these will include poorly maintained air conditioning systems and humidifiers, dust and fabric fibres circulating through the air, and the increase in hot-desking and open plan working. In some buildings even the paints, furniture and carpet fibres can emit volatile organic compounds and other unhealthy chemicals.

As well at the indoor hazards, some airborne contaminants might also originate from the outdoors – for example, from vehicle exhaust fumes or plumbing vents which enter the property through windows and other openings. Commercial spaces in urban areas and cities also tend to be impacted by pollutants from busy roads and nearby buildings.

In addition to these causes, biological contaminants such as pollen, viruses and spores can also pose health risks and lead to Sick Building Syndrome.

What are the symptoms of Sick Building Syndrome?

Although Sick Building Syndrome may appear to be an invisible problem, it has a very visible impact. Its symptoms are hugely varied and include headaches, eye and throat irritation, dizziness, nausea dry and itchy skin, rashes or even breathing problems, asthma attacks and personality changes. They can also vary from person to person, with some people being more susceptible than others.

In many cases, Sick Building Syndrome can be tricky to identify as people will often mistake their symptoms for a cold or flu as the symptoms are so similar. In environments where people are exposed to contaminants for extended periods, Sick Building Syndrome can also lead to more serious health issues.

How can the risk of Sick Building Syndrome be reduced?

One of the best ways to lower the risk of Sick Building Syndrome in commercial spaces Is to improve ventilation and reduce the sources of the contaminants. Opening the windows and letting in fresh air is an obvious way to improve natural circulation from the outdoors.

However, many commercial buildings often don’t have windows that open, and are also based in busy urban environments where the air outside is also badly polluted.

To reduce the levels of humidity circulating in the air, it is important to regularly clean up any wet or damp areas as these can become potential breeding grounds for mould and mildew. Identifying and repairing leaks or areas of standing water can also reduce the risk of biological particles and harmful spores getting into the air.

Although these steps are useful short-term fixes, a more long-term solution is to invest in technology to quickly and constantly remove all contaminants from the building. These systems pump out fresh air and circulate it around the building and in doing so remove harmful substances such as mould, bacteria, and viruses.

What are the benefits of the Airius PureAir series?

One of the best and convenient products on the market to reduce the risk of Sick Building Syndrome is the Airius PureAir series of PHI destratification fans. These fans offer the very latest in advanced active PHI air purification technology, manufactured by RGF Environmental, one of the worlds leading specialists in air, water and food purification and can reduce viruses, bacteria and gases by up to 99%, as well as mould and odours by over 90%.

RGF’s patented PHI cell technology creates and emits hydroperoxides, also known as ‘mother Nature’s Cleaning Agent’, into the internal air space. These invisible particles oxidise all manner of biological and chemical contaminants, rendering them instantly harmless to anyone occupying the building. Not only do they destroy these invisible threats in the air itself, they also eliminate them on any surfaces on which they are present.

The Airius PureAir series is also a cost-effective solution for many commercial spaces. The product is already installed in thousands of commercial spaces across the UK, from open-plan offices to care homes and dental surgeries – and in these locations the instances of Sick Building Syndrome have been significantly reduced.