Sick Building Syndrome: Home Buyers, Homeowners, And Renters Beware

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If you tend to feel unwell when at home, but fine when you go outside or move to another location, you’re not losing your mind. It’s quite possible that your home is causing you to feel ill. “Sick Building Syndrome was coined by the World Health Organization in 1986, one year after a mysterious Lake Tahoe outbreak of myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS),” according to Michael Rubino, a mold and air quality expert, environmental wellness advocate, and founder of HomeCleanse.

And Rubino, who is also president of Change the Air Foundation, and host of the Mold Talks podcast, tells me that it’s quite possible to develop symptoms of illness or become infected with chronic disease as a result of being exposed to contaminants and poor indoor air quality. This can happen in homes, offices, schools — any type of building.

De De Gardner, DrPH, RRT, RRT-NPS, a fellow of the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC), agrees. “Sick Building Syndrome is a situation where building occupants experience acute health effects and discomfort that are linked to time spent in the building and no specific cause of illness can be identified.” (This is different from Building-Related Illness (BRI), since in the latter case, Gardner says the symptoms of diagnosable illness are identified and can be directly attributed to airborne building contaminants.)

There are plenty of possible causes for Sick Building Syndrome. Rubino says some of the most common causes are as follows:

While Sick Building Syndrome is more commonly associated with office buildings or commercial properties, Rubino says it can indeed be a real problem in residential homes as well.

And in residential homes, the syndrome can be exacerbated by both lifestyle and maintenance factors. “For example, homes with poor air circulation, high levels of dust, or the presence of mold and mildew are more likely to cause symptoms,” Rubino says. “If the home is in an area with high pollution levels, was constructed with certain materials, or the inhabitants use certain household products, that can also contribute to the problem.”

And the issue is more common than you might think. “The World Health Organization Committee report from 1984 suggested 30% of new and remodeled buildings worldwide may be subject to excessive complaints related to indoor air quality,” explains Gardner. She says that common indoor air pollutants are mold, tobacco smoke, carbon monoxide, and asbestos. “The higher the concentration of the pollutant, the more hazardous it is and without a proper HVAC system, indoor spaces may be poorly ventilated in the home.”

Every spring, we’re bombarded with commercials for products that purport to relieve the symptoms of outdoor allergens. But it’s surprising that more time isn’t spent discussing indoor allergens. “The average person spends around 90% of their time indoors and between sleeping and other daily activities, our homes account for a large majority of this indoor time,” Rubino says. “We also breathe around 20,000 breaths daily, almost enough to fill a swimming pool.” Since air is one of the greatest routes of exposure, if it’s filled with allergens, he explains that it can aggravate the immune system and allow symptoms to develop.

Also, the trend toward net zero buildings, means there’s not much airflow between interior and exterior environments. “Without the ability for buildings to breathe, most particles that make their way inside will remain there — and over time, it can lead to a buildup of allergens,” Rubino says. And every time someone steps into this type of environment, their body will react.

So, what type of reactions do people typically have? “The building occupants experience and complain of acute discomforts such as headache, eye and nose irritation, dry cough, dry or itching skin, dizziness and nausea, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, and sensitivity to odors,” Gardner explains. “People who have building occupant illness may experience a cough, chest tightness, fever, chills, and muscle aches – these symptoms are clearly defined and have an identifiable cause.” And if your home has mold, Gardner says it can trigger respiratory issues, especially in patients with asthma.

Whether it’s Sick Building Syndrome or other building-related illnesses, she says the discomforts and symptoms may subside when the person leaves the building.

If you’re thinking about purchasing a home that makes you feel ill whenever you’re in it, fortunately, you have the option to walk away and find a healthier home if you don’t think the problem can be resolved. Brian Petranick, group president at Neighborly, recommends hiring a professional inspector to check for mold and other potential allergens. He also recommends checking for any signs of pests, as they can contribute to allergens.

For example, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, cockroaches can trigger allergy and asthma symptoms. That’s why it’s important that you don’t rush the home buying experience. Doing so is a first-time home buyer mistake that you may later regret.

“Adequate airflow can prevent the buildup of allergens, so you should ensure the home has proper ventilation to reduce indoor air pollutants,” he says. Petranick also recommends flooring materials that don’t trap allergens. “Consider installing hardwood or tile instead of carpets.”

You can also perform a dust test. “Our dust contains the contaminants in a home, particularly allergens, mold, and bacteria, and Robino says testing the duct can indicate if there’s something in the home that releases high particles into the surrounding environment and air. “If this is the case, that source of contamination will need to be dealt with properly, the contamination removed, and the home deep cleaned to remove any particles released.”

An indoor air quality monitor can also help by measuring the amount of pollution in the air. “Some of the common things they measure include particulate matter (PM), radon, carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), formaldehyde, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), or environmental factors such as temperature and humidity,” Rubino explains, adding that you should also be sure it can detect small particles.

If you decide to proceed with the purchase of the home, Rubino recommends that you deep clean it before bringing in personal belongings. This will help you avoid any cross-contamination.

If you’re already living in a home that you suspect is making you sick, it may not be quite as easy to pick up and leave. However, implementing the tips above and below can help:

Keeping the home clean is the first line of defense against Sick Building Syndrome. Petranick recommends dusting and vacuuming regularly to minimize dust mites and pet dander. Rubino agrees, adding, “Particularly, focus on dusting with a slightly damp microfiber towel and vacuuming with a HEPA vacuum cleaner.

But keep in mind that not all cleaning products are the same. “The best items are EPA-approved botanical cleaning products, microfiber towels, and a vacuum with a HEPA filter,” Rubino says.

Also, if you wash laundry with a botanical laundry additive, he says you can remove microscopic particles.

Making a few changes in the types of materials you use in your home can also make a difference. “Opt for less carpeting and more hard, cleanable floor surfaces,” Rubino says. That’s because carpet traps microscopic particles, and when those particles are disturbed, he explains that they become airborne. “Opt for the least number of porous materials in the home as possible because they are harder to clean,” Rubino advises.

In addition, Petranick recommends using hypoallergenic mattress and pillow covers to protect against dust mites.

Change your air filters according to schedule — or sooner. If you don’t, Rubino warns that they will recirculate allergens back into the air, which will trigger allergic reactions. “Switch to the highest-rated MERV filter the HVAC system can handle so that those filters can remove tiny particles in the air, like allergens,” he says.

Both Petranick and Rubino recommend the use of air purifiers. Rubino says you need to look for models that can remove the smallest particles possible. He recommends a whole-home air purifier.

Also, monitor indoor air quality daily. A hygrometer, used daily, can also help — and Rubino says indoor air humidity should remain between 35 percent and 50 percent.

Whenever possible, bring fresh outdoor air inside. However, Rubino advises against opening your windows on high-pollution days.

“Also, some indoor plants can help improve air quality, but be cautious if you’re allergic to mold, as soil can harbor mold spores,” Petranick says.

If you have pets, groom them on a regular basis and Petranick says you should keep them out of the bedroom to reduce allergen. Rubino agrees, adding, “Between dander and particles from outdoors, pets can introduce a plethora of allergens into the home.”

If you’re a renter, look for a way to prove that your indoor air issues are ongoing. “Pictures say more than anything, so take pictures and share them with your landlord and facilities or maintenance crew to address the issues,” Gardner says.

For example, if your ceiling and ceiling tiles are brown or have stains, she says mold may have developed. “The ceiling tile must be replaced — a professional should be hired to address a solution for any mold that is present and to address the water damage and a strategy to prevent this from occurring in the future.”

Water-stained carpet or flooring is another sign that you have problems, and again, a professional should address it.

“Look at the air vents or registers to see if they are clean, or dirty or blocked; if so, clean them with a vacuum or remove the blockage,” Gardner advises. And she recommends looking for mildew or mold on the bathtub, shower walls, or shower curtain or liner. “If mold or mildew exists, it will need to be removed.” To prevent this from occurring, she recommends using an exhaust fan when cooking, using a fan in the bathroom when showering or bathing, and using a fan where the washer and dryer are located.

Of course, these are all trends and tips for homeowners as well. In addition, keeping up with home maintenance projects can eliminate some of thee problems before they start.

Allergens can also enter your home on the soles of your feet. “Don’t wear shoes in the home; leave all shoes at the door to avoid introducing not only allergens, but also other harmful contaminants into your home,” Rubino says.

And if you’re a renter, here’s something else to consider. “The Healthy at Home ACT (HR 5533) shields federally assisted housing tenants from health risks,” Gardner says. “This bill will fund safety upgrades, support research, set quality standards and educate tenants.”

Finally, know that you’re not alone. Gardner says you can contact the local health department or the EPA to see if they can provide insights on your indoor air quality.

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