The term Sick Building Syndrome was first used in the late 1970’s after a mysterious outbreak of pneumonia occurred among people attending an American Legion convention in a well known Philadelphia hotel. Thirty four deaths were reported and 221 people required medical treatment.
Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) is not a specific disease but rather an association of several clinically recognizable features when the symptoms of a significant number of a building's residents are shared. SBS can be caused by several underlying factors. Each cause will result in a specific effect, requiring identification and a treatment plan that eliminates the problem and prevents future episodes. An entirely new industry has sprung up which attempts to identify, isolate, and remove the cause when a building is diagnosed with SBS, and the human inhabitants are adversely affected.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) mounted an unprecedented investigation into the American Legion convention outbreak. The focus shifted from an outside cause, such as a human disease carrier, to the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel itself, when the CDC identified and isolated a previously unknown strain of bacteria. It was found breeding in the cooling tower of the hotel’s air conditioning system and spread easily throughout the entire building.
The bacteria, subsequently named Legionella after the convention that triggered its discovery, caused what is now known as Legionnaires Disease. In January 1977, the world became aware that buildings could become 'sick' and spread disease to humans, sometimes with fatal results. These findings prompted new regulations worldwide for climate control systems.
SBS is more about ventilation than a specific style or type of building. For example, air-tight buildings conserve energy, are easier to heat and cool and here in Florida an air-tight structure is more resistant to hurricane force winds; all good points for condo dwellers, but there is a flip-side to be considered. An air-tight dwelling does not allow a structure to 'breathe,' and the circulation of stale, sealed-in air can quickly lead to deteriorated indoor air quality (IAQ), one of the main factors for SBS. The degree of deterioration depends on many things. Cleaning products, dust, cooking odors, pets, humidity, insecticide dust, pollen, mold spores, tobacco smoke, airborne bacteria and viruses are all pollutants that range from annoying to deadly. Carpeting, upholstery, electronic equipment, copy machines and pesticides also emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which enter the ventilation system of a building and eventually the lungs of its inhabitants. Pollutants from vehicles or combustible products may enter a dwelling from poorly located air intake vents, open windows, or even plumbing vents.