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How Sick Buildings Affect Lives


I first experienced the affects of sick building syndrome within fabric warehouse places my mother would take me as a child… But never understood the cause of those early off-gas symptomatic affects until working as a corporate building services, maintenance and project manager years later.

Sick Building Syndrome is coined by WHO (World Health Organization, 1986). Unhealthy building air environments can be caused by toxic materials-products, molds, and fungus from associated gas by-product found in many homes and workspace. Whereas the enclosed space becomes highly concentrated with toxins and bad for respiratory and body health. And/or the air intake and building exhaust air handling systems removal of hazardous gases and replenishment of fresh air underperform.

The focus here is to provide awareness to unhealthy environmental air space caused by off-gassing of new building materials, retail fabrics, cleaning agents and poor air circulation systems. However, sick building syndrome and symptomatic ill-health effects can also be caused by out-of-control molds and fungus.

Sick Building Syndrome as it relates to new material off-gasses often occurs after building construction and major renovation. And when material install, cleaning and curing compounds are applied, i.e., concrete, caulking, carpet, paint, glue, drapery, furniture; to include: building envelop replacement materials from outside walls and roofs may enter air handling systems – then contaminate the indoor air space.

Nobody accidentally consumed any of these materials, but people still got sick just from breathing the volatile organic compounds (VOC) which are now known to cause acute and chronic ill-health effects. Especially when improper ventilation of toxic air space and material cure times are out of compliance with environmental air safety standards prior to occupancy.

Popular tourist locations may present bad air environments for some.
Popular tourist locations may present bad air environments for some.

All possible side affects from inhaling off-gas materials – which include: home use cleaning products… are not fully understood by consumers. And that’s a problem with chemicals in many of our everyday home use items!  [Natural Health, May-June 1993 v23 n3 p54 (2)].

Toxic air space irritants often cause the following symptoms: irritation of eye, nose and throat. To neurotoxic effects, i.e., fatigue, irritability and headaches. And asthma like symptoms, dry skin irritation, gastrointestinal problems and more [wikipedia, 2015]. Other acute neurotoxic and symptomatic effects may disorient and cause one to lose balance as I’ve personally experienced.

If you’ve not experienced high levels of indoor air toxins simply recall that new car smell on a hot day.

Heated and enclosed air space with poor circulation has a way of squeezing chemical toxins out of any newly manufactured material. When I do drive a new car I role down the windows enough to vent it and bring in outside air. Some people love the smell of new cars and homes and are not sensitive to VOC toxins. Those sensitive to new material off-gases like prefer to buy a used car that looks new. Or purchase clean green home and personal hygiene products opposed to products with hazardous VOC fume aerosols where direct contact may be absorbed or inhaled.

As a former environmental air systems technician and later experienced building services and facilities maintenance manager, I learned there is a materials cure time prior to new building occupancy. Especially after new construction and major building renovations. Proper ventilation and recycling of fresh outdoor air allows the off-gas of materials to purge until hazardous toxins are released and dissipated to safe respiratory levels.

Fortunately today, unlike when I was growing up… To ensure buildings have safe air environments facility engineers, maintenance managers and technicians use preventative practices that sustain safe outdoor air intake and periodic HVAC functional testing as required by OSHA (Occupation Safety and Health Administration).

However, during my childhood my mother was what could only be described as a professional seamstress. She was also an excellent painter and drawer with specialized arts and crafts skill sets. She brought me to fabric and crafts warehouses where she’d spend countless hours rummaging through the numerous clothing design pattern-templates and sift through dozens of rolls of fabric, purchasing it by the yards. Including buying arts and crafts materials in bulk. Yes, these places were filled with newly manufactured materials releasing toxic off-gases in poorly vented air space.

I remember asking my mother not to take me to these places. I always felt sick after a short period of time inside. Of course, she assumed my ailment was brought about by pure boredom with no medical basis to back my complaints.

Since I was only 4 or 5 at the time, I was ignored and for lack of a better description “passed out in the children’s play pen area” due to the dizziness and feeling of a sick body. Once out of the store’s environment I immediately felt better. Since the lightheaded condition immediately cleared after leaving, there was no reason for my mother to suspect anything other than pure boredom was the result of my lethargic posture and complaints.

Yes. Lethargic and boredom posturing comes in all forms.
Yes. Lethargic and boredom posturing comes in all forms.

In the early 60’s, no one ever heard of sick building syndrome. Or even if air smelt toxic, people ignored what didn’t bother them. And for those affected were described by the unaffected as complainers, fakers, or needed mental health treatment. Or perceived as excuses to get out of work, or to leave or not participate in something.

As an adult I experienced a severe reaction to a sick building 20 years later at a newly constructed and popular sporting goods store only years after being married. This brought back the connection to my childhood in those fabric stores. I remember walking into this fantastic newly built sports center with my wife to purchase camping and hiking equipment. I was very excited to go in and gear up for our next outdoor adventure. But I only got 50 feet within the space.

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Then it happened.

The product off-gassing in this store was so strong [stronger than the fabric houses I recalled as a child], I quickly became disoriented and felt I was going to pass out and fall. I immediately grabbed onto a shelf to steady my balance and then my wife helped me walk outside where the symptoms went away in a matter of seconds. To this day I’ve never gone back inside this particular store.

Prior to this episode I’d go shopping for clothes and always feel light headed, but could tolerate the affect. My wife always assumed prior to this sports store episode I used my childhood experience as an excuse not to shop for clothes with her. In the past I had told her it was more of avoidance to not feel disoriented, sick or extremely tired. And I suspected it had to do with the chemicals emitted from heavy volumes of new apparel. She didn’t believe this to be truly factual until the watching my severe reaction in the sporting goods store.

My wife realized at this point I was not faking this sickness to get out of shopping with her. Come on, a sports store, hello… a man’s dream store to shop in. As a matter of fact she was one minute away from calling 911. I felt as if I was experiencing a drug overdose. Not that I ever had an overdose, but you get the point.

Then years after working as a HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) technician, services, maintenance and project manager everything came full circle making the connection to unhealthy air environments and symptomatic ill-health affects. 

Through understanding preventative maintenance practices on HVAC equipment and safe work space air standards, I’m able to immediately relate and sense unhealthy VOC and poor circulation environments. I simply don’t go into any space with an all too familiar chemical smell that could cause a severe respiratory and physical reaction. I do like to shop but like many others who share similar sensitivities to toxic fumes, I’m very aware when materials are still in the off-gas phase. And where bad, or poorly maintained ventilation and air systems conditions exist.

No matter the enclosed space: work, home, retail, car; any toxic air through off-gassing in poor air ventilation space may have an affect on anyone at any time. And when exposed to these toxins too long can cause medical problems and quality of life to suffer later on.

Recommendation: If you walk into a store and smell a strong chemical odor, and/or begin to feel sick, immediately leave and shop at a different place with better ventilation. Write, or email management you’ll be back after they improve their preventative maintenance practices and improve fresh air circulation systems and/or scrub ductwork, change filters and address other air systems contributing to concentrated contaminants. I will not step foot into any store, or stay long within a new home or newly constructed building that brings about an immediate feeling of sickness.

Restaurants may have poor ventilation systems
Restaurants may have poor air ventilation systems

You’ll know this feeling when sensitive to certain toxins because you may first experience respiratory or eye, nose, throat irritation followed by a feeling of light headedness.

If you’re hypersensitive like me to sick building toxic air space, you’ll immediately feel tired, or disoriented, or lose focus and/or feel off balance. And if overwhelmed by VOC may feel like you need to lay down for fear of fainting and falling. If off-gassing is causing a symptomatic ill-health affect in the home, or car increase outdoor fresh air intake, clean and/or change filters; have ventilation systems checked for equipment air quality and functionality. If you can’t address these issues due to financial limitations, open some windows part way to increase fresh indoor air quality and circulate air with fan.

If the problem occurs at work contact senior environmental safety engineers and health services to report and get the problem resolved within your work space.

In most cases, I cannot stand to be in any retail store filled with new clothes or near perfume sample stations long unless well-ventilated. Also many home cleaning products, new clothing apparel and building material products you breathe but not sensitive too are manufactured with known chemical carcinogens that also off-gas within space.

Do not take my word for it – go to any search engine on the Internet and type in sick building syndrome, off-gas, home cleaning products and carcinogen… you be the judge. For you and your children’s health and wellbeing, consider taking preventative air quality and clean green products measures to ensure your home is a healthy and a safe environment for the entire family.

Author: Marc T. Woodard, MBA, BS Exercise Science, ARNG, CPT, RET. 2015 Copyright. All rights reserved, Mirror Athlete Inc., www.mirrorathlete.org, Sign up for your Free eNewsletter.