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Indoor Air Quality

Sick Building Syndrome

The "sick building syndrome" exists. However, it has proven very difficult for scientists to characterize the causes, treatment, or human responses to the sick building syndrome. This is because of the extremely variable natures of both the exposures to environmental stressors in buildings, and the responses of individual people, a small fraction of whom appear to be hypersensitive to particular aspects of the indoor atmosphere.

The effects of the sick building syndrome on people range from drowsiness and vague feelings of discomfort, with subsequent decreases in productivity, to the development of actual illnesses. In many cases it may be necessary for the afflicted people to leave the building for some length of time. Sometimes, sensitive people must give up their jobs, because they find the indoor air quality to be intolerable.

As a result of the difficult-to-define nature of the sick building syndrome, important medical and environmental controversies have developed. Some scientists suggest that people who display building-related illnesses are imagining their problems. It is suggested that these people may have developed so-called psychosomatic responses, in which clinical illnesses are caused by non-existent factors that the victim believes are important. Increasingly, however, scientists are convinced that the relatively sensitive physiologies of severely afflicted people are direct responses to physical, chemical, or biological stressors in the poorly ventilated, enclosed spaces where they live or work. Increasingly, indoor air quality issues are being taken seriously by private individuals, commercial property owners, health organizations, and federal, state, and local governments.

Further research and monitoring will be required before a better understanding of the sick building syndrome can be achieved. This knowledge is required in order to design sensible systems of avoiding or treating the problems of poor-quality indoor air of buildings, and to better protect people who are exposed to this type of pollution. Federal and state agencies are working with home owners, developers and building maintenance professionals to develop plans and programs for dealing with indoor air quality programs. Particular attention is being paid to schools, because the relatively more-sensitive physiologies of children make them particularly susceptible to health threats from poor indoor air quality.



Indoor Air Quality in Office Buildings: A Technical Guide. Ottawa: Health Canada, 1993.

Indoor Allergens: Assessing and Controlling Adverse Health Effects. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1993.

Bill Freedman


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—Spores or actual microorganisms that occur suspended in the atmosphere.


—The occurrence of extreme sensitivity to chemicals or pathogens in a small fraction of a larger human population. Hypersensitivity may be related to an extreme allergic response, or to a deficiency of the immune system.

Sick building syndrome

—A condition in which people frequently complain about a number of ailments while they are in a particular building, but feel relief when they go outside.

Ventilation rate

—This refers to the amount of outside or ambient air that is combined with re-circulating inside or return air, and is then supplied to the interior space of a building. This may also apply to some part of a building, such as a particular room.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Incomplete dominance to IntuitionismIndoor Air Quality - Factors Influencing Indoor Air Quality, Aspects Of Indoor Air Quality, Sick Building Syndrome