By Paul J. Markevicius, Environmental Consultant, Verteco, Dubai
Almost everyone who has worked in a commercial office building or shared workspace that is air-conditioned must be familiar with the term sick building syndrome (SBS). What is SBS? One search on the internet will tell you that it’s a condition affecting office workers, typically marked by headaches and respiratory problems, attributed to unhealthy or stressful factors in the working environment such as poor ventilation.
The volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions from surrounding fixtures, fittings and furniture are also considered potentially unhealthy to breathe and a contributory factor in SBS. The received-wisdom descriptions of ‘oh it’s the change in season’ as the default rationale for spontaneous colds may assuage concerns for some. For others, it’s a disenfranchised acknowledgement lamenting the five-year lack of proper cleaning of the ducting and ventilation system as the likely cause. They know all too well what SBS means for them. But, not necessarily where the root problems lie!
What many people inhale in our everyday environments may not bear too close scrutiny but are potentially dangerous to ignore. Whatever is in the ducting, in microscopic form as ‘particulate matter’ drawn in from the UAE’s endemic sandstorm, construction dust and high mould spore-count environment, is going into your lungs if not filtered and sanitized. Not to mention whatever airborne viruses and pathogens (including legionella incidentally), may have found their way into the same neglected air ducts and an insidious invisible channel into your air-ways.
Estimates suggest that the air quality inside urban buildings is five to ten times more polluted than external air and one in five urban dwellers suffer from some form of allergy, notably breathing-related, the most common being asthma. The infrastructure for passing ‘clean’ air and extracting contaminated air all utilise the same basic engineered elements - AHU’s (air handling units) drawing in ‘fresh’ air to the building; fans to push the air along the ducting channels and pass through (carbon) filters along to a series of FCU’s (fan coil units) in the minor ducting leading to the offices for more filtering, before being pushed through vents for the unmitigated pleasure of oxygen-challenged lungs.
Where do the problems of SBS start? We can’t arbitrarily change the air supply source coming into the building. Though some might argue, with enough electric vehicles replacing the toxic petrol and diesel emitting cars, this would make a considerable difference. But this is not going to happen any time soon despite the tax breaks provided by electric car companies.
Without a doubt, the main cause of SBS is the poorly maintained ventilation systems in AC-dependent buildings. It is worth identifying if the source of the problem is from where the air supply is taken and that you are not inhaling impurities because of poor design, engineering and planning of the AHU installation. Is the AHU setting appropriate for the airflow, size of ducting and humidity levels? And most importantly, is the AHU filter cleaned and sanitized along with the ducting? Duct cleaning and the often-spurious methods employed can be a notional concept when it comes to effective removal of pathogens. Cleaning the filters is not sanitizing. Sanitizing, which means destroying or neutralising the airborne bacteria, requires appropriate agents such as UVC bulbs, ionization or ozone technology, combined with carbon filters. And it still requires constant checks that the setting of the AHU has not been altered by ill-informed FM helpers. The reason for a high percentage of contaminated air as the key problem in ventilation systems is the lack of effective sanitation to address and remove the contaminants. Without sanitation, the contaminants are simply re-circulated around the building as the HVAC picks up the air from one room and passes it to the next.
Further, the root cause of SBS directly relates to another prevailing human syndrome that is also a type of illness. The collective behaviourism that absolves ultimate responsibility, more commonly known as negligence, with its recalcitrant ugly sisters-in-waiting, complacence, ignorance and scapegoating. In my hospitality site visits a strange anomaly occurs within the bricks and mortar infrastructure operation, that of acceptable duty of care service provision when it comes to IAQ. A state of affairs that if neglected, seems to tacitly imply, the level of air quality provision is not our responsibility. Why? Because the IAQ is rarely ever challenged from what is provided by anyone, it is almost never checked on a regular basis, or benchmarked against an existing air quality standard.
If air quality of a specific standard was the unambiguous legal responsibility of the custodian of the building, including the facility management company outsourced to manage services within the building, and this was mandated by government - then we would witness quite a difference in attitude, responsibility and behaviour. And hopefully, air quality.
One of the loosest areas of public health control – the IAQ – has no enforceable international standard to point to – an alarmingly conspicuous absence in today’s environmentally-focused world. It is because there is no mandate requiring buildings of a particular size and number of occupants to have regular air quality tests with reports sent to government’s environmental departments to demonstrate compliance, as is the case with legionella. Although, what takes place around this specific area of water testing for legionella bacteria produces highly dubious clean bills of health from buildings that can’t even find the blueprints for the building plumbing system, let alone tell you where the water pipes are.
Any building harbouring and reproducing the very bacteria that supposedly do not exist (according to reports) is a danger to innocent tenants or guests, be it legionella, other harmful pathogens or toxic mould spores. The ignorance at best or subterfuge-disguise at worst excuse is a type of institutionalised SBS. The reinforced behaviourism of calculated neglect weighed up against budget savings in many cases, while holding no-one accountable to check air quality as a daily legal requirement, means there is no fundamental shift in attitude or responsibility. It must be mandated. I fear it will take a serious epidemic or fatalities to bring this about.
We live in a technology driven world of IoT (internet of things) that monitors our environment 24/7. It is now possible to establish the very point where negligence can be challenged by amassing data sets using IAQ sensors to monitor our individual physical well-being within our own places of work, leisure or home. Technological self-help will become the norm as the public discover the means for doing health-checks on their own environments. It should also precipitate on-thespot frequent lab testing as verification – not I hasten to add, unqualified reactionary measures by unqualified personnel. But ultimately raise the bar for building owners and managers to take more IAQ responsibility.
I witnessed an office floor in a building in the business area of Dubai covered in mould. Evidence of potential source pointed to air leaks in the envelope of the building - usually pin-prick holes that allow the hotter outside air to meet the colder air from the HVAC, producing moisture and a breeding ground for mould spores to reproduce. Tell-tale condensation stains around the window frames are a good indicator. As I observed the encrusted mould on the carpets and the black and green mould growth on the wall and experienced the heavy cloying air that irritated the lungs, it was clear that this was a very toxic environment. What about the previous office occupants who had moved out, and their state of health? How long had they been allowed to work and breathe in this toxic environment without any professional intermediation?
Incredibly, as was revealed by the wellinformed, but passive facilities management tour guide – there had been complaints, but these were misdirected onto the condensation issues – not the more hazardous, toxic mould spores sharing the desk and lung space of the workers. Why I presupposed would the managers disabuse them of their less serious health-related theories? He also admitted if it was on this floor – then it probably was on the other floors below also. This was in June. By the end of December I am sure there will have been no inspection, bacteria or IAQ test carried out to address source of mould and to sanitize the remaining floors of the building for the safety of the occupants – all paying top rent per square foot in prime commercial real estate.
With the built-in desire to save money in a low-performing property market, and with the hotel room yield at a fourteen-year alltime low and without a government mandate for IAQ reports against a meaningful and measurable standard of air quality – the S from the BS will not be disappearing any time soon. With further cost cutting and increasing competition SBS is only likely to get worse with quality compromises an inevitability.