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Is your building making you sick?

Studies say invisible contaminants in indoor air and pollutants emanating from carpets, desks and machines at workplaces are actually making us sick

Image Credit: Seyyed de la Llata/ © Gulf News
Gulf News

Dubai: We feel the signature symptoms all too well — fatigue, eye, nose and throat irritations to allergies, migraine, headaches, infections and sudden colds and flu. All around us, our office mates are seemingly forever sniffling and coughing — when they are not calling in sick.

Given that most of us spend 90 per cent of our time indoors, especially during the soaring heat and humidity of summer, it’s no surprise that our immune systems are highly vulnerable to poor indoor air quality and stressful work environments.

Scientific studies are beginning to back up our workplace suspicions that desk work is not always favourable to our health and wellbeing.

An avalanche of studies are delivering convincing evidence that invisible contaminants in indoor air as well as chemical-laden pollutants emanating from carpets, desks and machines at workplaces are actually making us sick, spurring on absenteeism, lower work output and costing employers untold revenues in lost employee productivity.

There’s even a name for it — Sick Building Syndrome — a malaise thought to be brought on by harmful pollutants in commercial, industrial and home designs.

While the UAE is at the forefront of constructing and retrofitting more than 500 buildings to meet global green building standards, there remains a lot of work in the years ahead to bring indoor spaces up to healthier levels free from contaminants, say Dubai-based specialists advocating changes in how we approach building design and operate workplace environs.

Chemical lifestyle

Farah Yassine, Senior Consultant Sustainable Resource Management, Middle East, with WSP consultancy firm, is working with her colleague Eirini Matsouki, WSP Associate, to make more companies aware of the health threats to workers and instigate meaningful change.

“It is a very subjective matter but we do know that people have a lot of symptoms that vary when they enter a building - from sneezing and headaches to feeling nauseous. We spend so much time indoors,” Yassine told Gulf News.

“We have minor-building illness or they could be more serious, sick building syndrome, which can lead to migraines, asthma, coughing and wheezing. It depends on what causes it and our tolerance to chemicals and atmospheric conditions.”

Long-term, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), chemicals that are off-gassing from paints, carpets, laser printers and photocopiers, “are really everywhere and can lead to fateful diseases,” said Yassine.

Occupant or worker surveys querying respondents about thermal comfort, noise levels and air quality, suggest that illnesses are linked to the workplace, said Yassine.

Yassine said a long list of chemical compounds and air particles are found in everything - from desks and office cleaning agents to mold spores and dust found in air ventilation shafts.

A lot of work remains as well to encourage companies to create more ergonomic offices through less crowded office spaces, more colourful decor and layouts that encourage employees to be more physically active, said colleague Matsouki.

Companies are realising that a happy worker is a productive worker and can dramatically help improve the bottom line, she said, noting that firms who have made significant design and indoor improvements are seeing double-digit jumps in worker productivity.

“Different stakeholders in the industry are recognising [this] and switching. There is a movement toward this in general in the UAE,” Matsouki said.

Major global study

To gain a better grasp of the impacts on workplace maladies, in 2013, the World Green Building Council gathered experts from around the globe to initiate a sweeping study dubbed Health, Wellbeing and Productivity in Offices: The Next Chapter for Green Building.

The study explored a wealth of contributing factors.

“The evidence was compiled, debated and synthesised. Overwhelmingly, research clearly demonstrates that the design of an office has a material impact on the health, wellbeing and productivity of its occupants,” the study stated.

One of the biggest concerns raised was air quality.

The study concluded that “ozone, offgassed volatile organic compounds (VOCs), allergens and asthmagens make for a veritable cocktail of potential pollutants that may come from building materials, carpets, finishes, cleaning products, office equipment and traffic; while the carbon dioxide exhaled by office workers themselves can be detrimental when left to amass in high concentrations.”

Improving ventilation in offices to remove the build up of airborne contaminants reaped huge benefits to workers, study authors said.

Improved air quality also markedly slashed incidence of sickness among employees, study revealed.

“Reduced absences may also be a key indicator of the benefits of good indoor air quality for businesses. Short term sick leave was found to be 35 per cent lower in offices ventilated by an outdoor air supply rate,” study authors said.

“Being productive in the modern knowledge-based office is practically impossible when noise provides an unwanted distraction. This can be a major cause of dissatisfaction amongst occupants,” the study said.

Seven categories

There are seven categories which examine critical areas needed for healthy buildings, according to the Well Being Standard: Air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind

Study: Many Dubai classrooms have poor indoor air quality

Bad indoor environment quality isn’t just affecting office workers. According to a study by a team from Faculty of Engineering and IT at British University in Dubai, some schools in the UAE are not meeting proper indoor standards aimed to protect health of children.

Building on a prior study completed in 2012 Behzadi and Faedyi which collected data from 16 schools in Dubai and Fujairah, the British University study found that total volatile organic compounds (TVOCs) found in classrooms were more than two and half times the acceptable levels.

“Average TVOCs concentrations of 815ug/m3 were recorded for entire studied classrooms,” the team reported in its study. The concentration of an air pollutant is given in micrograms (one-millionth of a gram) per cubic metre air or µg/m3.

“According to Dubai Municipality, TVOCs’ concentration should not be more than 300ug/m3. Indoor sources, such as pen inks, air refreshers, painting works done by the students and furniture that could have contributed to measured TVOCs in the classrooms were observed. However, they cannot be used to explain high TVOC concentrations measured in the studied classrooms,” the study stated.

What is known is that “TVOCs values greater than 666 ug/m3 could cause considerable increase in the eye, skin, nose, throat, and mouth irritations.”

The findings are important for future investigation that is needed, stated the study, because children are more vulnerable to indoor quality than adults and spend up to 1,300 hours a year in UAE classrooms.

“Young children may be more susceptible... It is important to reduce students’ exposure, especially in elementary schools, to high TVOCs concentrations in indoor environments,” the study argued.

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