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Avoiding sick building syndrome in schools and workplaces

Sick building syndrome is an umbrella term for a range of symptoms that occur to the occupants of a building. They include headaches, dizziness, nausea, dry cough, dry or itching skin, nose or throat irritation, difficulty concentrating and fatigue.

The primary cause of symptoms is poor air quality linked to inadequate ventilation, biological contaminants like bacteria, mould and mildew and indoor chemical contaminants called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted from materials such as carpets. Most sufferers report relief from the syndrome soon after leaving a building.

While sick building syndrome occurs in office buildings, it is also experienced in other communal structures such as apartment blocks and schools.

To help improve ventilation in classrooms in England, the government is spending £25m to equip every state school and college with CO2 monitors. These portable devices will allow teaching staff to assess where ventilation needs improvement and act quickly.

The rollout of monitors is designed to help reduce coronavirus spread, which is primarily transmitted via airborne particles, making enclosed spaces breeding grounds for germs. However, monitoring and reducing carbon dioxide levels can also improve concentration.

Research suggests that when people breathe in too much carbon dioxide, their performance suffers. In a study by Harvard, SUNY Upstate Medical School and Syracuse University, 24 professionals from multiple industries were exposed to different carbon dioxide concentrations for six days.

At the end of every day, they were given decision-making tests. Study participants working under the heaviest concentration of CO2 (1,400 ppm) performed 50% worse on cognitive tasks than they did working under the lowest concentration (550 ppm). When the workers were in rooms of medium CO2 concertation of 945 ppm, their test scores were 15% lower.

Ways to combat sick building syndrome

Today indoor quality is top of mind as we try to provide cleaner and safer environments for occupants of buildings. To prevent sick building syndrome, it´s vital to prioritise air quality and take steps to reduce pollutants and contaminants. Here are a few steps you can take to provide a healthier internal environment.

  • Install an air quality control system that includes carbon dioxide monitors and air purifiers.
  • Ensure your building is regularly cleaned to remove dirt, dust, debris, and external contaminants that may have entered from outdoors.
  • Use VOC-free cleaning products
  • Place plants around the office. They absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen.
  • Try to reduce workplace stress.
  • Open windows to improve fresh air circulation.
  • Choose interior materials carefully. Look for paints with low VOC ratings and choose carpeting and furniture made from natural materials.
  • Ensure your office has access to plenty of natural light.
  • Encourage staff to venture outside during lunch breaks.
  • Have your heating, ventilation and air-con systems (HVAC) regularly cleaned and serviced. HVAC systems are a leading cause of poor indoor quality as any impurities are distributed through air ducts to the rest of the building.
  • Clean wet and damp areas to control humidity that could encourage the growth of mould and mildew.


If you suspect your workers may be suffering from sick building syndrome, it´s imperative to address the issue as soon as possible. Doing so will give your building´s occupants a safe, clean environment.

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