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Fixing sick building syndrome

jpritzen1 | Posted in General Questions on

What steps would a green home performance contractor take if a client told him they think they have a sick residential building? Client’s symptoms are coughing, sneezing, & general respiratory issues.

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  1. wjrobinson | | #1

    Recommend moving. Simple answer. Everything else is complicated, the expense may be unaffordable and results may be for not.

  2. iLikeDirt | | #2

    That works if it really is the building that's to blame. If the clients' symptoms are caused by something else (New pet? New pollen allergy? Declining air quality in the area? Seasonal fireplace use by neighbors?), then moving is just a big unnecessary expensive hassle.

  3. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #3

    J Prizten,
    You might want to start by reading this article: Helping People With Multiple Chemical Sensitivity.

  4. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #4

    Those are extremely general symptoms. It's good to rule out the obvious with a walk-through and interview. eg:

    Back drafting or unvented gas-fired appliances/ranges can cause coughing, sneezing, & general respiratory issues for lots of people in a so-so tight house that is not properly ventilated, but it doesn't fall under the heading of "sick building syndrome".

  5. jpritzen1 | | #5

    I'm just wondering what things the home performance contractor would be looking for.

    I'm trying to ask in the most hypothetical way but unfortunately my questions will be tainted with personal experience because doctors just want to give you medication & it's not their job to find out what's wrong with a building.

    Maybe sick building syndrome may not be the proper technical term, but what I'm trying to describe is a building that is just not healthy for its occupants. In other words, there IS something either in the building material or air that can irritate people, no matter their sensitivity.

    The issues you guys brought up - pets/pollen/backdrafting - how would you resolve those issues after doing the obvious step(s) of removing the pet or backdrafting equipment. Sorry if this is so vague - just at a loss of who to turn to.

  6. user-2310254 | | #6

    I think you would want to exclude medical issues as a first step. Is the client the only person with these symptoms, or are other residents of the building similarly affected? Is it a seasonal condition (for example, do the symptoms get worse in the winter and improve in the spring)? How long has the client lived in the building? If he/she/they are new to the building and were previously symptom-free, that would suggest the new environment is causing a problem. Has the client moved from another region of the country? Is there a new member of the family (human or otherwise.) I think you get the idea.

    If the building is the problem, I think Nate G. is correct. My current home was built to be a "healthy house," and it was not an easy process.

  7. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #7

    J. Pritzen,
    There is nothing easy about the type of case you are talking about.

    A home performance contractor can check for backdrafting (with a worst-case depressurization test), and if backdrafting problems are found, the atmospherically vented appliances can be replaced with sealed combustion appliances.

    A home performance contractor can verify whether there is a mechanical ventilation system, and whether it works if there is one, and can recommend the installation of a mechanical ventilation system if one is lacking.

    A physician can be consulted for diagnosis of any medical problems.

    Beyond those steps, you have entered a big gray area where contractors shouldn't make any further recommendations.

  8. charlie_sullivan | | #8

    There are now home air quality monitoring systems available for around $200. It might be possible to see a correlation between symptoms and readings on the air quality monitor. I don't know which to recommend or which readings would be most likely to be helpful. Possible things to look at include particulates, VOCs, CO2, and maybe others.

    Even more basic is humidity level--to high could be encouraging mold and/or dust mites.

  9. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #9

    J. Pritzen,
    The remedies that Nate G. suggests might solve your client's problems. Or they might be a colossal waste of money. Tread with care.

  10. iLikeDirt | | #10

    You are in a rough situation whose cause Martin hints at: contractors don't understand health and medicine, and doctors don't understand buildings and construction. Doctors won't find anything wrong with you and contractors won't find anything wrong with your house. It's a rare breed of person whose expertise spans both fields, and you may have to become such a person yourself if you can't find a relevantly-knowledgable building inspector and want a satisfactory resolution to the problem.

    There are basically two sources of pollution for people with sensitivities: outside the house and inside the house. Outside pollutants could be pollen, wood smoke, or other contaminants that are carried by the air. The best way to control these is to have the building be as airtight as possible and use mechanical ventilation from a source you can choose and control, and then use a high-MERV filter on the incoming airstream to keep the pollutants out. This won't get everything (e.g. wood stove smoke), but it can be pretty effective. For any exterior pollutant it can't filter out, the only solution is leaving the area.

    Inside pollutants are myriad. Mold spores, off-gassing formaldehyde, off-gassing from any number of other materials. It's a tough nut to crack because there are so many potential sources but mold is an under appreciated source of indoor air pollution. Do mold tests and remove and replace all materials that are found to have mold growing on them. Preferably, replace them with mold-impervious materials. Try to get all the wood and especially engineered wood products like particle board out of bathrooms and kitchens. These are very moisture-sensitive materials that can grow mold very easily. They have no place in wet environments and IMHO anywhere at all.

    Indoor gas appliances are a huge no-no and can very negatively affect air quality. Cooking with gas is a particular offender, especially if used without a range rood or with only a recirculating range hood.

    Make sure there aren't any cracked sewer pipes or non-functioning traps. Sewer gas coming into the house through the waste plumbing can be a culprit as well.

    Any place where plastic or processed wood products are close to a heat source are problematic because heat may prompt them to off-gas volatile compounds. Materials near heat sources should be stone and masonry-based. Remember that most paint these days is a plastic product!

    And as a general rule, when replacing things, favor those made out stone and masonry materials that come from reputable sources as opposed to wood or plastic, especially highly-processed varieties. And don't buy anything that comes from China. QC and health standards are practically nonexistent there. Theoretically drywall should be totally inert but they managed to sell millions of pounds of drywall that was so full of sulfur that it corroded pipes and made people sick.

    Good luck!

  11. KeithH | | #11

    First, full disclosure, I'm not a pro but an amateur off the far end of crazy.

    Are you the client or the contractor? I suffer from allergies and I can tell you that for me mechanical irritation, chemical irritation, and allergies are experienced very differently. For me, coughing and headaches are not typically from allergies but every allergy sufferer is different. Assuming you are the contractor, I have no good ideas what you can do to help you client distinguish between the different types of respiratory distress. My rather sideways point is that a good allergist or ent might be able to distinguish between causation. Be aware that for some people gastric reflux disorder can cause throat clearing and some mild coughing which would presumably not be related to the building.

    You also don't tell us what new work has been done recently in the home. IMHO experience off gassing and odors, while they may continue for years, do diminish with time. Materials less than 1 year would be the first to suspect. Don't rule out paint just because it is no VOC etc. I find the new nonVOC paints much more irritating. Go figure.

    Nate's list is great but I disagree with one item. Unless it is getting directly wetted, solid wood doesn't mold that easily. Ripping out trim or vanities and replacing them will inevitably involve new materials, new finishes, new adhesives etc. Unless you test those materials and vet them for VOC, odor, etc you may make the problem worse.

    You also don't tell us about onset or relief of symptoms in terms of calendar year. In most area of the US, pollen count is near zero in the winter, making seasonal allergies less likely and heating systems a better suspicion. Be aware that some people are allergic to animals are allergic to mice. Could there be an intrusion into flexible duct in the attic or crawl space downstream of the air filter? I've seen mice living in supply hard pipe where the pipe was 'poorly' connected.

    How about new laminate (or perhaps engineered) flooring? A recent flooring project left the room difficult to use for sometime due to odor (presumed mdf off gassing).

    Well, just throwing out a few things that weren't mentioned above.

  12. nvman | | #12

    I am going through the same issues right now.
    Have you done any recent renovations?
    Has your house become more air tight?
    There are so many different products that can off-gas even when used in small quantities.

    Our window installer used Tremco 830 to caulk and that stuff is very toxic, even in small quantities.
    The new Certainteed insulation uses a corn syrup binder. That too can have a very strong odour. I can attest that it takes several months to dissipate.
    Even packaging can cause problems.
    Our engineered flooring came in cardboard boxes. The flooring itself has almost no odour (made in Canada) but 1400 sq ft of flooring in preprinted boxes has quite an odour.
    While the majority of our cabinets are plywood, a few doors were made with MDF that had a very distinct odour. When I enquired, I was told that it met California air quality requirements, the strictest in North America.

    As Nate mentioned, a high quality filter can help but won't filter everything, especially wood smoke. In fact, it is very difficult to find a good whole house air filtering system for VOCs, smoke, formaldehyde, etc. The best are bypass systems which connect to the cold air return and filter a portion of the cold air return.

    I know that I sound somewhat negative but I am still somewhat hopeful that I can come up with a solution. However, it won't be cheap. Add in an HRV, a filtering system for the HRV and possibly a new high efficiency sealed combustion gas furnace and electric hot water tank, to remove reliance on combustion air supply, costs a few dollars. However, if you truly want to manage your environment, that is what you have to do.

  13. jpritzen1 | | #13

    Though I posed the question asking what a home contractor would do, I'm just a homeowner trying to get an idea of the frame of mind that person would be in.

    What if I posed the question this way - if a builder was renovating an old single story brick building to be a health clinic, what steps would that builder be taking that would trigger them to do "this" instead of "that" since they know they're building for a hospital/clinic?

    Obviously ventilation & air filtration are an obvious decision, but those are focused on removal after pollution has been introduced. What about preventing it in the fist place (some things/building materials have already been mentioned), and what questions would be asked in order to assess the current condition prior to any work being started?

    I don't want to make it sound like our homes should be built like hospitals and that society is weakening itself by always being over-protective, but though I have a "decent" place now, I've lived in some pretty run-down apartments with poor sanitary conditions over the years & have never had as many health issues that I've had in the last year since moving into this home; my wife included.

    This is why I just want to think of the hypothetical questions one would be asking themselves if they wanted a really clean house...and that's before even thinking about buying or replacing anything.

  14. BobHr | | #14

    It has been speculated that the increasing asthma rates may be tied to us living in a much cleaner environment then we lived in 50 to 75 years ago. They have also found higher rates of autism closer to major freeways. Are we to clean or not clean enough?

    If you are having a home performance contractor come in the things they would be looking at are air leaks, water leaks and whether the appliances my be contributing due to venting or back crafting issues.

    Air leaks may be allowing air to come in from dirty sources. This could be air from a crawl space with a dirt floor. Air leaks may be coming in areas may have had rodent dropping or coming through dirty insulation etc.

    A thermal camera could find sources of water leaks. Both exterior leaks and plumbing leaks. Wet/damp areas could be growing mold.

    Things home owners can look for. Old carpets can be a host to a lot of allergens. Some people like to remove carpets. Are there signs of rodents or insects. Insects and rodent droppings can have serious health implications. Hantavirus is a very serious disease contracted from stirring up rodent droppings. Air ducts can stir up and spread dust and allergens.In many new homes owners will report they need to frequently. Ask them if the dust is white and they will respond with a yes. This is drywall dust and one of the finer dust and it is not captured by a furnace filter. We have seen the drywall dust complaint even after 5 years. Cleaning your air ducts can be of great benefit.

    Look at the furniture today. Buy a desk or bookcase and bring it home and put it together. It is made of glue and sawdust with plastic surface. Lots of things in the home are off gassing. Does the home have a mechanical ventilation systems. At certain time home will have lots of weather induced ventilation. Heat, cold and wind will cause lots of air to leak into and out of a house, Other times there is not the driving forces and things build up inside the home,

    Its all very complicated and can be hard to pin point what the problems are.

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