Sick building syndrome: understanding it and mitigating its effects

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Indoor air quality (IAQ) is a growing societal concern. Since the entire population is concerned by this issue, it turns out to be major for the proper functioning of our businesses. Today, nearly 80% of our time is spent inside different types of buildings: places of education or work, transport, shopping centers, housing, leisure areas, etc. Faced with this, it is important to remember that we are not all equal with regard to the buildings in which we have to evolve. Not everyone has the chance to work and live in a healthy place.

One of the criteria for detecting whether the place is considered healthy or unhealthy is the indoor air quality. This can be easily damaged by the substances present in the air and contributing to its pollution. According to the Indoor Air Quality Observatory (OQAI), the air can be up to five to ten times more polluted indoors than outdoors.

Air pollution is the cause of ailments of which a growing number of workers are complaining. The symptoms described are grouped together under the name of Sick Building Syndrome (SBM) . The particularity of this syndrome lies in its difficulty in being detected by the people who suffer from it, since they are faced with a great diversity of symptoms that differ from one person to another and do not seem to have any identified reasons. Knowledge on the subject has nevertheless evolved and allows the sick building syndrome to be recognized today as “a multiplicity of factors at the origin of various affections”, which have the particularity of appearing in the occupants of buildings. same building and whose symptoms decrease sharply or disappear when they move away from it.

What is sick building syndrome?

Even if it remains relatively unknown to the population, Sick Building Syndrome has imposed itself both in the field of environmental health and in that of occupational health, and has even become one of the most frequent (including the rise has been constant since the 1970s, according to La Presse Médicale).

In the 1970s, the WHO (World Health Organization) identified Sick Building Syndrome as “the manifestation of psychological and health problems directly associated with a built place” .

A more precise definition of SBM, given in 1983 by a group of WHO experts describes it as follows: “a combination of atypical symptoms including headache, fatigue, irritation of the eyes and nostrils, dryness of the skin, and disorders of concentration in people working in confined spaces.” Following the research that has been done on this syndrome, we now know that it affects the following parts of the human body: the central nervous system, the mucous membranes, the skin, as well as the respiratory system.

During the emergence of symptoms of SBM in the population, the scientific community favored the psychological track to explain the causes (overwork, negative work atmosphere, managerial influence, etc.), considering environmental studies as costly and useless. However, it is indeed thanks to these that the notion of “air pollution” has emerged, little by little, considered today as a major public health issue.

As discussed above, the symptoms associated with SBM differ from person to person and depend on the sensitivity of each individual’s immune system. For example, people with chronic asthma or allergies may be more sensitive to pollutants in the air and develop more severe symptoms than the rest of the population.

Symptoms fall into two categories, physical disorders and psychological disorders, and often occur in that order.

Physical disorders: dry cough, asthma, excessive fatigue, irritability, sore throat, difficulty breathing, chest tightness, nasal burning sensation, runny nose, sneezing, conjunctivitis, malaise, nausea, ENT problems, headache, dizziness , itching and rashes, body aches.

Psychological disorders: malaise, depression, anxiety, which can be created or reinforced by the perception of persistent discomfort linked to the appearance of multiple physical disorders.

If you or your co-workers notice these types of symptoms when you are inside a building and find that they go away when you are outside, you may be suffering from Sick Building Syndrome.

It should therefore be remembered that SBM is a set of atypical symptoms present in an individual, without clear pathological signs. It is a diagnosis of exclusion, doctors must therefore exclude any other potential pathology that could explain the symptoms, before ruling on Sick Building Syndrome.

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