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Sick building syndrome is a term first used in the 1970s to describe symptoms experienced by occupants of a building that can be linked to their presence in the building. Usually, the building in question is an office building, but that is not always the case.

There are a whole range of symptoms associated with sick building syndrome. Many of the complaints (eye & throat irritation, nasal congestion, inability to concentrate) could be connected with common ailments. But what suggests a syndrome is the fact that occupants share the same symptoms, and the symptoms are relieved when occupants leave the building.

If a significant portion of building occupants report discomfort, then the possibility of sick building syndrome should be considered. However, if symptoms can be linked to a specific indoor air pollution source, then the symptoms should be considered a building related illness, not sick building syndrome.

Sick building syndrome has been blamed most often on poorly designed or maintained ventilation systems. The ventilation system itself may carry the irritant source throughout the building.

Others believe that very low levels of known pollutants, which would not threaten occupants' health individually, nonetheless work in combination to cause health effects. Environmental elements may also contribute to the problem--humidity, poor lighting, temperature extremes, noise and psychological stress.

It is not known exactly how widespread the problem of sick building syndrome is. A nationwide survey in the United States found that one office worker in four perceived indoor air pollution problems in their work environment. One in 5 believed that their work performance was hampered by indoor air pollution.

Any attempt to solve the problem of sick building syndrome will require a team approach. Health care providers, industrial hygienists and public health officials will need to cooperate to investigate sick building syndrome complaints and develop solutions.