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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Is Your Job Making You Ill?

You drive into work feeling pretty great, albeit a tad drowsy, but that’s nothing that a cup of coffee won’t fix. You sit down at your desk and begin your day and shortly thereafter, begin to get the sniffles. Your eyes get all watery; your skin may become dry and itchy. You feel a headache coming on and it becomes harder to focus. You feel drained. Your co-workers complain of experiencing similar symptoms. Ironically, as soon as you leave the building, you breathe a sigh of relief. Coincidence? I think not and I’ve got some scientifically proven facts to share with you.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are several causes of “Sick Building Syndrome” (also called “Environmental Illness”):

1) Inadequate ventilation
In the early 1900’s, building ventilation standards required approximately 15 cubic feet/minute (CFM) of outside air for each building occupant, mostly to dilute and remove body odors. However, due to the 1973 oil embargo, national energy conservation measures called for a reduction in the amount of outdoor air provided to 5 cfm/per occupant. Needless to say, the reduced outdoor air ventilation rates compromised the health and comfort of building occupants.
Also, inadequate ventilation may occur if the heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems do not effectively distribute air to people in the building. Inadequate ventilation is therefore thought to be a significant contributing factor in Sick Building Syndrome.

2) Chemical contaminants from indoor sources
Most indoor pollution comes from sources inside the building (surprise). Substances such as adhesives, carpeting, upholstery, manufactured wood products, copy machines, pesticides, and cleaning agents can emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including formaldehyde. Research shows that some VOCs, such as carcinogens, for example, can contribute to chronic and acute health effects when they are at levels of high concentration.
Many people also identify the following products as chemical triggers:
i. Tobacco smoke
ii. Perfume
iii. Traffic exhaust or gasoline fumes
iv. Nail polish remover
v. Hair spray
vi. Paint or paint thinner
vii. Felt tip pens

3) Chemical contaminants from outdoor sources
Although outdoor air is necessary to keep indoor air palatable, it can often be a source of pollution. Pollutants from automobile exhausts; plumbing vents and restrooms and kitchens can enter a building through poorly located air intake vents, windows and other openings.

4) Biological contaminants
The most prevalent types of biological contaminants are bacteria, mold, pollen and viruses. These contaminants may often breed in stagnant water that has accrued in ducts, humidifiers, or where water has gathered on ceiling tiles or insulation. Insects or bird droppings can also be sources of biological contaminants. Physical symptoms that can be associated with biological contamination are chest tightness, fever, chills, muscle aches, cough, and allergic responses like upper respiratory congestion and mucous membrane irritation (runny nose).
One particularly nasty indoor bacterium, Legionella, has caused Legionnaire’s Disease and Pontiac Fever.

The abovementioned elements may act in concert, and may supplement other ailments such as inadequate temperature, lighting or humidity. However, oftentimes, after investigation of the building, the specific causes of the complaints are rarely pinpointed. Still, it’s important to conduct “walk throughs” to check for obvious issues, such as water damage, overcrowding and poor cleaning.

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