The Power of Knowing: How to Combat Sick Building Syndrome

Can buildings get sick? According to the U.S. EPA, they can — and there’s even a name for it: Sick Building Syndrome (SBS). The EPA defines SBS as “situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified. The complaints may be localized in a particular room or zone, or may be widespread throughout the building.”1

What are the causes of Sick Building Syndrome?

Poor indoor air quality (IAQ) has been definitively linked to SBS and the related drop in occupant well-being and productivity. The three main causes include:

Inadequate ventilation. Without regular service and high-efficiency filter changes, HVAC systems will begin to pull in and distribute less outdoor air for ventilation across a commercial building or school. 

Indoor contaminants. The typical building is filled with materials that give off chemical fumes that can compromise IAQ —from carpets, adhesives and upholstery to printers/copiers and cleaning supplies. Gas stoves, fireplaces and space heaters often also produce particulates that accumulate in the air.

Outdoor contaminants. Since most HVAC systems are set to pull in air from the outside, the condition of the air surrounding a building will also influence IAQ. Vehicle exhaust, plumbing vents, combustion byproducts from other buildings and allergens from nature can gradually build up inside and lead to SBS over time.

What can be done to combat Sick Building Syndrome?

The poor IAQ that causes SBS happens gradually and is often not detectable through our senses. That’s why it is critical to continuously monitor building air distribution levels and relative indoor and outdoor air quality using specialized instrumentation. It is also why more organizations are pressuring building owners to increase their IAQ monitoring and reporting. The key is recognizing and resolving IAQs issues early, before the SBS has time to set in.

The TSI VelociCalc 9600 Series Multi-Function Ventilation Meter provides a versatile and portable solution for measuring air velocity and determining a building’s ventilation effectiveness. For IAQ evaluations, the economical TSI AirAssure™ Continuous Indoor Air Quality Monitor provides a simple means of being alerted the moment an IAQ issue arises, and the TSI Q-Trak XP™ Indoor Air Quality Monitor lets you dig deeper to find the root cause once alerted. The TSI BlueSky™ Environmental Air Quality Monitors let you monitor and measure the outdoor air surrounding your building.

When any of these monitors alerts you to an issue, it is time to investigate. Start by gathering data from multiple areas throughout the building, paying extra attention to the location where the issue was detected. Where are the occupants located? What are the possible contaminant sources? Are there any obvious pollutant pathways?

Analyze your findings and remove the likely source. Also check your HVAC system and its service history. Work to increase ventilation rates and air distribution. Simply installing a new high-efficiency filter will often move those numbers strongly in the right direction.

With data-driven insight into the quality of your air and the effectiveness of your HVAC system, you can significantly reduce the chances that SBS will ever be associated with your building. To learn more about how TSI instrumentation can help you maintain high IAQ, contact us today.


1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Indoor air facts no. 4 (revised) – Sick Building Syndrome: 1991 (1).