ITHACA, N.Y. -- Workers in poorly ventilated offices are twice as likely toreport the symptoms of sick building syndrome (SBS) as are employees in awell-ventilated environment, a new Cornell University study finds.
The researchers say they find no link, however, between SBS complaints andalmost three dozen potential irritants studied, or between the syndrome andage, education, gender, general stress, positive or negative feelings or avariety of other psychological factors. They did find mild links to avariety of physical workplace problems, including sensitivity to odors,feelings of being overworked, migraines, allergies and, surprisingly,musculoskeletal problems, which indicates that ergonomic factors play arole in the syndrome.
"These results strongly suggest that symptom reports are not primarilypsychological in origin, which some researchers have suggested," saysergonomist Alan Hedge, director of the Human Factors Laboratory inCornell's College of Human Ecology and co-author of the report. "Both theworkers with very few symptoms and those with more intense symptoms show aclear pattern of increased problems by the end of the day, suggesting thatsomething is making the workers who are more sensitive feel sick," saysHedge. "They are not simply grumblers -- though nothing we've looked at sofar seems to be the sole culprit."
The study is among the first to find that a relatively small buildup ofcarbon dioxide from human respiration -- an indicator of poor ventilation-- is related to SBS. It is also the first study to compare employees insimilar work environments with no or few symptoms with those with manysymptoms by asking them to keep a daily diary for one week.
Hedge and research associate William Erickson first tested four, multistorystate office buildings in Trenton, N.J., hourly, for two to threeconsecutive days, measuring nearly 36 potential worker irritants, includinglight levels, temperature, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, relativehumidity, dust mass, carpet dust, dust mite allergens, suspendedparticulate counts, nicotine and formaldehyde.
They then collected 1,508 questionnaires from workers in the buildingsconcerning their perceptions of ambient conditions, job stresses,work-related SBS symptoms as well as personal information.
No one irritant was linked to a particular symptom, even though workers inthe study showed a clear pattern of feeling worse by the end of each day.But Hedge and Erickson found that the odds of workers reporting specificSBS symptoms were substantially higher when the carbon dioxide levels wereabove 650 parts per million.
"This suggests that SBS symptoms may be associated with buildingventilation performance," Hedge says.
Hedge has been studying SBS for more than 10 years. In 1993 he reportedthat in a study of 1,324 workers from nine buildings, SBS symptoms werelinked to the amount of man-made mineral fibers in settled office dust andnot to tobacco smoke. In 1996 he reported that the brighter the officelights, the more often workers reported problems related to lethargy,tiredness and headaches.
In this latter study, SBS seemed to be linked to such nonenvironmentalvariables as heavy computer use, gender (women report more problems), jobstress, lower job satisfaction and advancing age. Several of thesefindings, however, were not supported by the latest study.
The new study, "Sick Building Syndrome and Office Ergonomics: A TargetedWork Environment Analysis", was funded by the Center for Indoor AirResearch, Linthicum, Md.
Materials provided by Cornell University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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