Buildings can be sick too


Sunday, April 14, 2019

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THERE has been a significant increase in the number of cases of respiratory or flu-like illnesses in Jamaica in recent times.

Many people accept that they are experiencing the flu, which has been sweeping the island and has caused the Ministry of Health to put the island on alert for influenza.

While flu is a reality in our midst, and should by no means be taken lightly, there could be other reasons for the prevalence of respiratory illnesses, and one culprit could be the building in which you work.

One woman, whose name has been withheld, who worked in an early twentieth-century building in downtown Kingston, was not overly concerned when she got a sinus infection the first week at her new job, notwithstanding that she had never before suffered from sinusitis.

Treatment from her doctor got rid of the infection, but two months later, she got another sinus attack. Then she started getting muscle cramps.

“I would set out to walk to a nearby restaurant at lunchtime, but I would get really bad cramps in my hips, so bad that I had to go back to my office,” she recalls. “As soon as I entered the building, my breath got short. I knew something had to be wrong.”

After going to her doctor and being subjected to a number tests, she took a leave of absence and the symptoms levelled off. When she returned to work, her throat started burning the minute she stepped into the building.

What is interesting is that the woman was not the only person working in the building who was experiencing respiratory and other health problems. Her symptoms were just more severe.

If you work in a building where a number of individuals routinely miss work days because of illness, the work environment might be to blame.

This is known as Sick Building Syndrome (SBS), which occurs when employees experience a number of symptoms and irritations that disappear when they are away from the work environment.

In other words, the irritations or discomfort seem to be linked directly to time spent in the building. The complaints may be localised in a particular room or zone, or may be widespread throughout the building. And this is a fact because in a number of cases with which I am familiar, only people who work in a particular area of a building experience the symptoms.

There have been recent reports of SBS in a number of facilities in Manchester. A study conducted by Northern Caribbean University lecturer, Dian Camoy Griffiths, in 2015, confirmed that several residents of the parish reported getting ill because they were either living or working in buildings deemed to have conditions common to “sick buildings”.

Additionally, also in 2015, there were reports that several students and staff at a university in Kingston had become ill; the causative factor was traced to moulds.

Some of the common symptoms of SBS include: Nausea; irritation of the eyes, nose and throat; dry cough; mental fogginess; headaches; skin irritation; dizziness; chronic fatigue; heavy post-nasal dripping of mostly mucus; sensitivity to odours; hoarseness of voice; a cold or flu-like symptoms; increased incidence of asthma attacks and sinusitis; allergies; chest pain; shortness of breath on mild exertion; and nosebleeds.

These symptoms reduce work efficiency and increases absenteeism.

Most affected individuals report relief soon after leaving the building in which they work, although lingering effects can occur. It is important to note that symptoms may also be the result of other causes, such as a pre-existing illness or other allergies, job-related stress or dissatisfaction and psychosocial factors.

The question then is what causes Sick Building Syndrome?

It might be indoor environmental factors such as the material used in the building construction. Building décor is also a contributing factor.

Many paints, carpet fibres, furniture and chemical cleaning products may emit formaldehyde, acetic acid, or volatile organic compounds and other chemicals. Standard office equipment, such as copiers, contributes to the problem by adding ozone to the mix. Mould or mildew from damp conditions (a constantly dripping air condition on carpeting, for example) creates air quality problems.

Poor ventilation could lead to individuals being affected by painting, cleaning, waxing floors, or any other pollutant-generating activities.

There are firms in Jamaica which assess the air quality in a building, or other contributing factors which could lead to Sick Building Syndrome.

George Blake, Technological Solutions Limited's audit and technical services support manager, notes that he looks for the points at which control measures will be most effective.

“One recommendation which we make to curb SBS in a workplace environment is to ensure proper ventilation and make sure that air condition units are well serviced,” Blake said. “If more clean air can circulate throughout your building while simultaneously preventing growth of mould, which would be caused by moisture, the likelihood of SBS is significantly lower. In addition, using pollutant-free cleaning supplies will further reduce this risk.”


Dr Wendy-Gaye Thomas is group technical manager, Technological Solutions Limited, a Jamaican food technology company. E-mail her at:

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