How to Tell Your Home Has Sick Building Syndrome (SBS)

By: Diana Rodriguez-Zaba
Updated on: March 13, 2019

In the United States, the average population will spend nearly 87% of their life indoors. For individuals with respiratory health concerns or sensitivities to allergens such as seasonal pollen, dust, and pet dander, their home needs to be a place of refuge. Indoor air contaminants are continuously re-circulated via foot traffic and HVAC equipment, meaning contaminants can build-up in the most inaccessible locations. Over time and with enough neglect, it’s possible for air quality to pose a great risk to health.

Do you keep your home clean, yet still experience the following symptoms?

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea & dizziness
  • Itchy watering eyes
  • Sinus or respiratory congestion
  • Extreme sensitivity to odors

If so, you could be experiencing the symptoms of Sick Building Syndrome (SBS). SBS is a term referring to a situation in which occupants of a building experience minor health or discomfort related effects linked to time spent in a building. SBS is a largely discussed concern in Chicago and because moving isn’t always an option, we’re sharing some information on how to identify a sick building, along with some tips on how to improve indoor air quality and living conditions.

How to Identify Sick Building Syndrome (SBS)

There are a number of things you can check for, but not all sick buildings are the same. Some contaminants remain unseen behind walls, under flooring, and within HVAC equipment, but there are a few common indicators to be aware of:

  • Strong odors, continuous leaks, or visible mold
  • Broken ceiling & floor tiles, loose debris, or chipping paint
  • Excessive indoor humidity >60%
  • Poor air circulation
  • Fluctuating temperatures and uneven distribution (too warm or too cold)

Have your home, living space or building inspected for the indicators above. A thorough inspection will provide a better picture of what you’re working with, and makes you aware of any existing hazardous gases, or toxic materials that could be harmful to your health. Once common contaminants are recognized, you can properly address, dispose of and prevent contaminant exposure.

Prevent Residential Contaminant Exposure

Asbestos: Most often found in homes and buildings built before 1980, asbestos was used as an additive in fireproofing, insulation, flooring tiles, and other building materials throughout the 1900s. Once this brittle material is disturbed or becomes airborne, the carcinogenic fibers are easily inhaled and can become lodged into the lining of the lungs to develop mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer, up to 10 to 50 years later. Never attempt to remove asbestos on your own. If you suspect that your home contains asbestos or asbestos-containing materials, have your home tested by a certified asbestos abatement professional.

Carbon Monoxide (CO): Carbon Monoxide can be released from gas heaters and stoves, and is toxic if inhaled. High concentration of CO and long-term exposure can be deadly. Install CO detectors on each floor, replace batteries regularly and inspect gas appliances for leaks, often.

Chemicals: Harmful chemicals should be sealed and stored away from HVAC equipment and inlets to prevent toxic fumes from being distributed throughout the home. Examples of common household chemicals::

  • Formaldehyde- an additive in manufactured woods, paints, and caulks
  • Perchloroethylene- used in clothes detergents and dry-cleaning products
  • Triclosan- an antibacterial additive in soaps
  • Ammonia- the “streak-free” ingredient in multipurpose cleaners
  • Chlorine- the active ingredient in mold and mildew cleaners

Lead: From the early 1800s throughout the mid 1900s, the use of lead containing plumbing and paints were common in many households. Depending on the age and renovation history of the building, your home may contain lead paint or pipework which can contaminate water and potentially pose harm to health. Have your home inspected for lead paint and plumbing to prevent lead poisoning.

Mold: Addressing excessive moisture and water leaks is essential to prevent mold. For humid locations such as the basements or attics, use fans on timers and dehumidifiers to circulate air and control humidity. Replace air filters and have your HVAC equipment and ductwork cleaned annually to; ensure efficient ventilation, prevent large blockages, safeguard against airborne particulates and to prevent the accumulation of mold. Have your home inspected for mold if you are unsure or able to identify mold, outright.

Radon: Generated as a product of radioactive decay from uranium containing soils, radon is a common airborne contaminant, known to infect nearly 7 million homes in the U.S. Radon is found in every state, making its way into homes through uncovered soil, foundation cracks, and service entrances. According to the EPA, radon is the leading cause for lung cancer among nonsmokers in the US. Still, although recommended, current law does not require radon detection testing across the nation.. Have your home tested for radon and install a radon scanner to prevent prolonged radon gas exposure.

When In Doubt, Get It Checked Out

Don’t wait until it’s too late. Preventative maintenance makes a difference! If your home is adding to your symptoms or making you sick, remember:

  • Ventilation is essential for keeping your environment free of contaminants, stagnant air, and mold.
  • Cleaning HVAC equipment, filters, and ducts allows those systems to work more efficiently while allowing the home to maintain optimal humidity levels.
  • Thorough inspections can alert you to issues and solutions you may not have known existed.

However, if you suspect your living conditions are negatively affecting your health, consult with your doctor and have your home inspected by an accredited professional.