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2011-07-20 20:07:07

Sick Building Syndrome and Housing Decisions Made by the Elderly


Invalids and those incapacitated spend close to 100% of their time in one place – indoors.  If in poor health, their conditions are made worse by the effects of sick building syndrome (SBS), a form of indoor air pollution.   Furthermore, those who are victims of indoor air pollution truly find themselves in a vicious circle – those in an indisposed condition spend more time at home because of it, which increases their exposure.  Sick building syndrome is of great concern for those considering new living quarters – apartments, private homes, assisted living facilities and nursing homes.  It is just as important for those in their present living quarters to know whether their domicile is “sick.”

 What is a Sick Building?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a building is sick if at least twenty percent of its occupants suffer persistent headaches, eye, and mucus membrane irritation that are relieved when they leave the building.  Additional symptoms provided through antidotal evidence include frequent colds, flu and respiratory infections, dizziness, fatigue, short term memory loss, and hypersensitivity to pollutants. 

 Problems: Room by Room

The following section is a room by room checklist which should be used by the elderly and/or their caregivers when evaluating new living quarters.  This checklist can also be used by those in their present place of residence to determine whether they are subject to indoor air pollution.

 A.  Kitchen/Laundry

1.  Cooking Surfaces

Problem:  Gas stoves and ovens release carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and other toxic gases into the air.  Heating fuels, as well as wood and coal, also pollute the indoor environment and should be avoided.  Older microwave ovens should not be used – they emit stray radiation.

Solution: Electric stoves and ovens are preferred.  They are least likely to produce indoor air pollution.  If natural gas cannot be avoided, the flame should turn blue; above the cooking surface, a hood should be properly vented outside.

2.  Cookware

Problem: While aluminum pots and pans are inexpensive, they release aluminum in the foods prepared in them.  High levels of aluminum have been linked to many illnesses, including Alzheimer’s disease.

Solution: Stainless steel, ceramic and cast iron pots should be used to cook food. 

3.  Laundry

Problem: Natural gas powered clothes dryers may spew gas into the air. 

Solution: If an electric dryer is not an option, it is necessary that the dryer be properly vented to the exterior of the structure.

4.  Cleaning

Problem:  Household cleansers often exacerbate a sick building problem.  Furthermore, modern cleaning compounds also use propellants which are poisonous.  Consumers are often unaware of how dangerous a product may be because some ingredients are not labeled or are trade secrets.

Solution: The use of environmentally safe cleaning products and increased ventilation are necessary.  However, when to clean may be a problem for facilities such as nursing homes where many residents are invalids.

B.  Common Areas: Living Room/Day Room

1.  Fireplace

Problem:  A fireplace is often the centerpiece in a living room – whether in a private home, apartment, assisted living facility or the day room in a nursing home.  However, there are many pollutants released in wood burning fireplaces, as well as those with gas logs.  Synthetic fire logs and paper are worse – they introduce arsenic and other toxic chemicals when burned.

Solution: Short of no longer using the fireplace, the following are suggestions for continued use: (1) make sure the structure is adequately ventilated when the fireplace is in use, and (2) the installation of glass doors will inhibit toxins from permeating the living space.

2.  Vinyl Flooring, Carpets, Drapes, Upholstery, Plywood, Paneling, Particle Board and Fiberboard Furniture

Problem: These items are subject to outgassing and release formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air.  Carpets and rugs, as well as drapes and items of upholstery, also harbor biological contaminants.

Solution: Remedies include the switch to solid wood furniture and the installation of hardwood or ceramic tile floors.

C.  Bedrooms

1.  Furniture, Upholstery, and Floor Coverings

Problem: The elderly, especially those that are ill or immobile, spend a great deal of time in their sleeping quarters.  The problems mentioned previously related to furniture, upholstery and floor coverings may also be applied when evaluating sleeping quarters.

Solution:  See above.  Also, bedding should be washed regularly in hot water.  Upholstered items should be eliminated or kept to a minimum.

2.  Space heaters and Humidifiers

Problem: Space heaters can spew many pollutants into the air.  Humidifiers may spread live, organic pollutants (such as viruses, spores, fungi, molds and bacteria) into the indoor air.

Solution: The use of gas space heaters should not be allowed when attempting a healthy air environment; electric space heaters are preferred.  Humidifiers are discouraged.  However, if the use of a humidifier is absolutely necessary, it should be regularly cleaned and disinfected. 

D.  Bathroom

1.  Water/Wet Surfaces

Problem: Wet surfaces (shower, floor, and lavatory) promote the growth of mold.

Solution: These surfaces should be cleaned with vinegar and water to get rid of the mold and then kept as dry as possible.

2.  Various Chemicals

Problem: Indoor air pollution is especially problematic in the bathroom because the bathroom is home to many products (deodorants, hairspray, etc.) which use offending chemicals as propellants.   Products used to clean the bathroom are also dangerous due to their chemical makeup.

Solution: Ban the use of fragrances and other chemically based products.  Occupants should switch to other products which are less offensive.  However, it is imperative to ventilate the area when aerosols or cleaning products are used.         

E.  Basement

1.  Heating and Cooling System

Problem: The basement may contain the furnace and/or HVAC system.  If the system is poorly maintained or is faulty, they may release poisonous gas into the dwelling. 

Solution: The ideal system is one which is well-maintained.  HVAC systems need to be inspected annually by a professional and thoroughly cleaned every five years.  Filters need to be changed at least four times a year.  Combustion fuel systems are not as good as electrical systems.  If a furnace is used, the basement must be well ventilated.

2.  Radon

Problem: Radon is a colorless, odorless gas that has been linked to cancer.  It is formed by the decay of uranium in the earth and soil.  Radon seeps into buildings through cracks in a building’s foundation, walls and basement.  Any building can have a radon problem.

Solution: Sealing cracks in floors and walls may help to reduce radon.   Severe problems need the attention of a professional skilled in radon mitigation.

F.  Garage

1.  Cars and Lawn mowers

Problem: The storage of cars and lawn mowers may be the source of toxic exhaust fumes permeating the living space.

Solution: The garage and the house should be separate.  If this is not possible, the garage must be well ventilated.

2.  Storage of Pesticides, Cleaning Solutions, Various Chemicals

Problem: The garage is often the area of choice when storing pesticides, cleaning solutions and other various chemicals.  Unfortunately, these toxins may harm the occupant’s health.

Solution: The ultimate solution to this problem is to eliminate the offending items and find appropriate substitutes which are environmentally friendly.  In the absence of such, it is imperative that the area be well ventilated.  Pollution which cannot be eliminated must be dispersed.

G.  Other Problems to Consider

1.  Tobacco Smoke

Problem: The smoking of tobacco products pollutes indoor air and endangers the health of smokers and nonsmokers.

Solution: A no smoking policy must be instituted.

2.  Office Equipment

Problem: Office equipment and related materials have been documented as contributors to SBS.

Solution: Section off and provide exhaust systems for office equipment which release volatile chemicals.

Methods for Assessing Pollutants

If a property is thought to suffer from SBS, it is necessary to confirm the diagnosis.  There are at least three methods for assessing pollutants: home test kits, testing by for-profit corporations, and testing by governmental agencies. There are several home test kits on the market today which test for the presence of certain pollutants.  Such kits are relatively inexpensive and are available at hardware stores, home improvement stores, and discount stores, as well as over the internet.  However, these kits do not offer comprehensive testing for SBS.  Comprehensive testing is offered by many corporations around the country.  For a fee, the firm can identify the offending agent(s).  Testing may also be offered by local or state governmental agencies interested in public health and welfare.

What to Do When a Building is Found to be “Sick”

If a diagnosis has been made of SBS, it is suggested that the following steps be taken: In the case of a private home, the owner would likely engage the services of an indoor air quality specialist.  The expert would then draw up an option table.  The option table would describe different courses of action that can be taken to alleviate the problem, and the associated cost of each.  For the elderly living in apartments, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes, the resident and/or his family should speak with the building’s owners or operators to determine what will be done to correct the matter, as well as when the solution will be implemented.  If the solution is unsatisfactory or untimely, the resident and/or his family may contact the local or state department of health.  Drastic measures may include moving to new living quarters.


Sick building syndrome (SBS), a product of the energy crisis of the 1970s and other combining factors, occurs when 20% of its occupants suffer certain symptoms that are relieved when they leave the building.  This form of indoor air pollution is of great concern for the elderly considering new living quarters – apartments, private homes, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes.  It is just as important for those in their present living quarters to know whether their domicile is “sick.”  Exposure to SBS is hard to detect, but very dangerous, especially to the elderly due to their greater length of exposure, heightened susceptibility, and inherent weaknesses.  Discussion of SBS, as well as a checklist that should be used by the elderly and/or their families for evaluating living quarters, is presented in this paper.


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