Maintaining a Healthy Building How's the Air in There?

It was January 1977 when the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) first identified and isolated a previously unknown strain of bacteria found breeding in the cooling tower of a hotel air conditioning system. The bacteria, subsequently named Legionella, caused an outbreak of what is known as Legionnaires Disease, and the world first became aware of the concept of ‘sick building syndrome.’  

Thirty-four people died from that particular 1977 outbreak, and an additional 200 people required treatment. A new industry sprang up worldwide to identify, isolate and remove the cause of when a home, office or building is diagnosed with Sick Building Syndrome or Building-Related Illness (BRI). And it’s not going away. New York City just suffered through such an outbreak due to infected cooling towers, in which 12 people have died and over 100 were sickened.

Obtaining a True Diagnosis 

It’s important to realize that Sick Building Syndrome is not a specific disease; it’s a constellation of several clinically recognizable features when symptoms appear in a significant number of people occupying a particular building. The term is used to describe situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear linked to their time spent in the building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified. BRI is the term used by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) when symptoms of a diagnosable illness are identified and can be attributed directly to airborne building contaminants. Using these criteria, the Legionnaires Disease outbreak in '77 was actually a Building Related Illness, and not Sick Building Syndrome.

Laureen Burton, a chemical toxicologist with the EPA in Washington D.C., helps explain the difference between SBS and BRI. “In general, BRI symptoms are easier to define clinically than SBS, and appear linked to the time spent in a building. The illness can often be identified as directly attributed to building contaminants.” Burton points out the most common factors contributing to indoor environmental quality (IEQ) are not new. “Most IEQ problems result from inadequate ventilation, temperature, humidity and even lighting problems.”

Chemical contaminants from indoor sources pose additional problems when there is misuse, improper installation, or just poor maintenance of products and appliances. Excess moisture indoors is a problem in itself, and when combined with other factors, it may complicate a speedy resolution. 


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