Indoor environmental issues and building-related Illness

Problems in the indoor environment have significant complexity and affect people and activities in an unfavourable way. Building-related Illness can be defined as health problems/ discomfort that have a time relationship with being present for a period of time in a particular building. Symptoms of discomfort may include headache and fatigue.

Further information about roles and responsibilities for indoor environmental problems, as well as advice on how to prevent discomfort and illness, can be found on this page.

Symptoms/discomfort

In 1983 and 2000, the World Health Organisation (WHO) agreed on symptoms that can be classified as symptoms of building-related Illness, commonly referred to as sick building syndrome, provided that other diseases/causes of symptoms are investigated. The symptoms arise when one is present in premises where a poor indoor environment is detected. Symptoms also tend to disappear when exposure ceases, however can also persist in causes discomfort over several non-working days. It is different in each individual how long the symptoms can persist. The symptoms can be divided into 3 groups of symptoms: general, mucous and skin symptoms. Discomfort symptoms you may experience: eye, nose, throat irritation, dry skin feeling or dry mucous membranes, erythema (reddening of the skin), itching, mental fatigue, headache, high frequency of respiratory infections and cough, cold symptoms, hoarseness of the throat, wheezing and non-specific hypersensitivity, nausea, dizziness, chest tightness, malaise, difficulty concentrating and sensitivity to smell.
Studies carried out on sick building syndrome show that a small proportion of the people affected may experience persistent symptoms in different degrees, but most do not experience any residual symptoms or discomfort. A small group suffers from asthma, which however can improve when the exposure ceases. An increased sensitivity to poor indoor environments may persist. There have not been reports of increased incidence of cancer nor increased risks for pregnant women.

Preventive advice

• Printers and copiers should not be present in office rooms, as these cause airborne particles and undesirable amounts of ozone.
• Research instruments/equipment may affect air circulation and cause incorrect room temperature or humidity.
• Paper should preferably be stored in closed bookshelves/cabinets due to that paper causes a lot of dust and makes cleaning more difficult. Dust irritates one's airways and mucous membranes, and may contain allergenic substances.
• Food residues may not be present in office rooms.
• Ensure that all surfaces are cleaned with the proper methods and products.
• Privately-owned furniture may not be used in the office rooms. Upholstered furniture can emit emissions that can irritate mucous membranes.
• Water plants just enough, and check that there is no mould in the flower potting soil.
• Choose perfume-free fragrances.
• Check that the furnishings do not impede the operation of ventilation; see the guide to a good indoor climate in related information.
• Is it pollen season? Are there open windows?
• Is there exposure outside your premises such as exhaust fumes, construction site?

Head of Department (or a person in an equivalent position)

• Always has the ultimate responsibility for the faculty and staff's work environment at the Department (or the equivalent) equivalent concerned.
• Has the responsibility for reviewing preventive advice.
• Has the responsibility for case management, invites the Contact Group to meetings, and has the responsibility for ensuring that employees are informed throughout the process.
• Has the responsibility for ordering medical review of faculty and staff at Occupational Health Care Services when deemed necessary.

The Building Owner

• Has the responsibility for informing the work environment coordinator about cases/fault reports that come in to them and concern sick building syndrome.
• Has the responsibility for documentation of the inspections of the relevant premises.
• Has the responsibility for the property and using Checklist 2 – Building description and general inventory.
• Has the responsibility for presenting Checklist 2 and eventually an action plan in the Contact Group.
• Has the responsibility for ordering any in-depth investigations related to technical systems and reporting the results of the investigations.
• Has the responsibility for taking measures related to technical systems and documenting this.

Occupational Health Care Services

• Has the responsibility to participate in the problem-solving process. The occupational health and safety engineer is included as a part of the Contact Group.
• Has the responsibility to ensure that an investigation of the health of the staff is conducted. This means a medical assessment with examination and sampling according to their procedures. If necessary, the Occupational Health Care Services obtain consent for feedback regarding the individual to the employer.
Medical examination: your doctor will examine what you are experiencing that gives rise to your symptoms, such as your lungs, nose, mucous membranes, skin and eyes. There are no blood tests that can confirm the relationship between the indoor environment and your health condition with sick building syndrome/building-related ill health. Specimens are taken to rule out that there are other causes such as your fatigue or your allergy-like symptoms or discomfort. Sometimes allergens that others bring into the environment can cause indoor environmental symptoms, such as cat allergen (cat dander) on clothes, or ventilation problems. Respiratory symptoms can be diagnosed via examination with spirometry. Asthma symptoms can sometimes have a delayed onset and do not arise until later that evening or even the following day.
A deterioration in the respiratory tract related to an extended presence in a suspected indoor environment can have many different causes, such as an infection, asthma unrelated to the indoor environment, paradoxical vocal cord motion disorder, allergic or non-allergic rhino conjunctivitis, eczema or even psychosocial causes. If you need an in-depth clinical assessment of your symptoms or, if necessary, a supplementary investigation of exposure conditions, contact can be made or a referral can be written, for example, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, the Lung and Allergy Clinic, or the ENT Clinic.

Work environment coordinator

• Has the responsibility for informing the Head of Department (or a person in an equivalent position) and building owners about matters that come directly to the work environment coordinator and refer to the fault report.
• Acts as a support to the Head of Department during the matter.
• Is to inform the Head of Department about the order of proceeding and the rules of procedure.

Health and Safety Representatives

• The Health and Safety Representative represents the employees in health and safety matters within their field of activity and must be present in order to support the employees in the process.
• The Health and Safety Representative is expected to help to bring about satisfactory work environment conditions in accordance with the work environment legislation.
• The Health and Safety Representative has the right to participate and give an opinion on changes, renovations, remodelling and planning that are important from a health and safety work environment perspective.
• Included as a part of the Contact Group.

Alexandra Haglund
12/3/2021