Is Your Home Making You Sick? Sick Building Syndrome 101

Is Your Home Making You Sick? Sick Building Syndrome 101


Sick Building Syndrome. It’s a real medical condition in which people experience sickness as a direct result of occupying a particular room or building and feel better when they leave the area. You can experience SBS anywhere; it could be your office building, your favorite store or even your home.

(Note: If you get a headache from arguing with your boss or your spouse, that’s not SBS. There are interpersonal issues that may cause stress or anxiety,  but they’re not related to the building itself.)

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sick building syndrome - bathroom

Could your home be giving you Sick Building Syndrome? Image: dSPACE Studio 

What is Sick Building Syndrome?

When you’re at home, you may be exposed to chemical contaminants from exhausts in the bathroom and kitchen or from plumbing vents. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) can also cause this condition. VOCs are found in pesticides, tobacco smoke, carpets and upholstery. Alternately, an unvented space heater, a fireplace or an oven could be the culprit.

If there’s construction nearby, those materials could also contribute to your Sick Building Syndrome. In addition, biological contamination from bird and insect droppings can contribute.

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Simply cleaning your HVAC system could get your SBS under control. Image: Chalet 

Robert Weitz is a certified microbial investigator and founder of RTK Environmental. He tells Freshome, “If your HVAC system hasn’t been cleaned or the filters haven’t been changed, they could be harboring dust, mold or other contaminants such as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, and other toxic materials that can be found in paints, solvents, cleansers, carpets, disinfectants, air fresheners, pesticides, nicotine, glue, home furnishings and building materials.”

So, what are the symptoms of Sick Building Syndrome? According to Weitz, you may experience headaches and nausea, coughing fits or sudden exhaustion. Some people assume it’s their allergies, especially when they experience irritation in their eyes, throat or nose. Itchy and dry skin, as well as difficulty concentrating, are other symptoms of SBS.

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Don’t just assume you have your allergies if you experience these symptoms for a prolonged period. Image: Floorcraft

What contributes to SBS?

Dust mites are a problem for some people as they cause allergic reactions. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, dust mites can live in your furniture, beddings, carpets and stuffed toys.

Sometimes, the mold and humidity in your home could be making you sick. (We have an entire article on mold here.) Mark England, who owns the AdvantaClean in Raleigh-Durham, NC, tells Freshome that air conditioning systems should be run from May through October and the fan setting should be on “Auto.” If you leave it set on “On,” the system will run continuously and this moisture it condenses can be blown back into the house.

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Moisture buildup can contribute to SBS. Image: Christopher D. Marshall Architect

England also recommends adding gutters to the roof of your house and adding downspouts at the base. This will redirect rainwater away from your home.

If there’s a crawl space in your house, England says you need to make sure there’s a vapor barrier (plastic covering) on top of the dirt. “This ensures that moisture from the dirt floor won’t evaporate and seep through into the air beneath the home.”  He says the vapor barrier also helps to eliminate problems with odors, mold, insects and wood rot.

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Keep your bedding clean to keep symptoms at bay. Image: Highmark Builders

How to control Sick Building Syndrome symptoms

To combat dust mites, wash your bedding in hot water at least once a week. You can also use zipped covers on your mattresses and pillows. Vacuum regularly (using HEPA filters) and discard the contents as soon as possible. Also, make sure the humidity level in your home is less than 50 percent, since bed bugs like high humidity levels.

Vacuum and dust typically forgotten areas, such as under your bed or on top of hard-to-reach places.

It’s impossible to avoid VOCs altogether, but consider storing items likely to contain VOCs in your garage or another area away from your home.

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