Health: Is it the building that's sick, or the people in it?

The reality of `sick building syndrome' is still being denied.
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IT WAS a London basement. The walls, covered in a glutinous coat of off-white, were lit by a low-energy light bulb, giving the sickly, warm hue of a provincial massage parlour.

Kate agreed with her colleagues that their small publishing office made them feel sick. "You can't breathe," she said. "All the windows have been painted shut and we've got this ridiculous air-conditioning system always on the blink."

On complaining to their management, the employees were told that there simply wasn't the budget to give the office a decorative overhaul, let alone move to new premises.

"One of them told me to get a plant," says Kate, "but it would take a lot more than a mangy rubber thing battling to survive, to do anything for us."

Despite the strength of her feelings, Kate didn't want her full name used in an article about Sick Building Syndrome (SBS). "They might think I'm a trouble-maker," she said.

Though SBS was recognised as an official disease by the World Health Organisation in 1986, some still dispute its legitimacy. Like ME and repetitive stress injury, SBS is regarded by some as a convenient prop for malingerers.

Academics from two institutions have produced research that implies that SBS is a myth. Professor Phil Jones, of Cardiff University, says that workers in boring jobs are most likely to believe that they are sufferers.

"We found there are areas of a building where lots of people complain. Their problems may be caused by physical conditions ... But generally it is because they don't like their job."

Adding to the debate, Dr Alexi Marmot, an architect, has said: "I wouldn't use the term `sick building' at all. There are sick organisations and poor management and a lot of people who have difficult lives - that is what we are seeing here."

However, both are, by extension, saying that office workers in particular are finding their lives blighted by work.

In the early Eighties when workers began to register a catalogue of symptoms - headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, visual disturbance, difficulty concentrating, impaired memory, respiratory problems, catarrhal deafness, tinnitus, skin conditions - the medical profession was baffled.

Jack Rostron, of Liverpool's John Moores University, author of Sick Building Syndrome says: "It has taken between 20 and 30 years for a disease of this sort to be recognised, largely because there are vested interests ... and there is still a machismo element to British management. Businesses are going to have to wake up ... Significant sums have already been paid in litigation in the US, so British employers should expect similar court actions."

The US Environment Protection Agency's study said that up to 5,000 cancers a year may be caused by SBS, contributing towards a $60bn annual bill for sick leave, medical costs and lost production.

Dingy offices such as Kate's workplace are often seen as the worst offenders, but the real culprits are offices built later. When the oil crisis of the Seventies led to a rise in energy costs, developers planned the next decade's buildings with energy conservation in mind. Previous standards for ventilation and air conditioning were reduced. Sealed offices were built: the all-time offender and monument to the booming Eighties is, of course, Canary Wharf. The vogue for open-plan offices led to photocopiers and printing machines, which give off toxic gases and particles, being placed among workers.

Unsurprisingly, Scandinavia and The Netherlands have taken a lead in producing people-friendly workplaces. Employees are involved in the design - and ask for windows that open and control over heating, lighting and ventilation.

"People are fed up with working in a bad environment," says Jack Rostron. "I think we will definitely see litigation when people take their employees to court after suffering from SBS."

`Sick Building Syndrome' by Jack Rostron (Routledge, pounds 27.50)

Office Health Tips

1 Plants are not just a way of pleasing the eye. Bill Wolverton, formerly of Nasa, found that some plants - azaleas, rubber plants, poinsettia, lilies - take toxins from the air.

2 If you can't open the windows, try installing a small electric fan near your desk. Any air movement is a positive way to combat SBS.

3 If you are unlucky enough to have a photocopier, fax or printer nearby, ask for it to be moved to a well ventilated room.

4 Ensure that you do not work near large bundles of paper. They give off dust that can prompt allergic reactions.

5 Take regular breaks; and try to get out at lunchtime. Check the glare on your VDU monitor. Bring problems to your manager's attention. If your bosses stall, consider changing jobs.