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The Sick Building Syndrome Conundrum: How the COVID-19 Pandemic Has Both Improved and Harmed Indoor Air Quality

Dianna Smith

More than a year has passed since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and in this time we have adapted our buildings and lifestyles to minimize risks. At the outset, our main goal was to stop COVID-19 from spreading, but along the way, we began uncovering new connections between building interior conditions and illness in general. 

One of the most prevailing issues related to healthy buildings is sick building syndrome (SBS). While the exact causes of SBS are unknown, indoor air quality does play a crucial role in both the pervasiveness of sick building syndrome and the transmission of COVID-19. With healthy buildings at the front of the global conversation, we decided to discuss how COVID-19 has impacted SBS, for both better and worse. 

What Is Sick Building Syndrome?

Before we explore the connections between SBS and COVID-19, let’s define what sick building syndrome is. 

Sick building syndrome, also called SBS, is a term used to describe an array of health effects and symptoms linked to time spent in buildings, without any specific diagnosis or causes.

While cases of SBS may not have directly attributable causes, research shows that poor indoor air quality is one of the main instigators of sick building syndrome. Inadequate ventilation, chemical air pollutants, biological contaminants, and outdoor air pollution can all increase the risk of SBS in buildings. While other factors, such as noise, light, and stress levels, may also contribute to discomfort for building occupants, we will be focusing on indoor air quality when we explore the connection between COVID-19 and SBS. 

How the COVID-19 Pandemic Contributes to Sick Building Syndrome

The two ways the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted sick building syndrome rates relate to time spent at home and cleaning protocols. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, many businesses and organizations opted for their employees to work from home whenever possible. While this move was greatly beneficial for lowering COVID-19 transmission rates, the commensurate increase in activity at home, including cooking, cleaning, and work-related activities, may expose work-at-home employees to high levels of indoor air pollution. 


Certain work-related devices, such as printers, can create indoor air pollutants like fine particles. 

In both homes and offices, the use of sanitizers and disinfectants enormously increased in response to COVID-19. These products are necessary for eliminating the virus, but most cleaning products significantly harm indoor air quality. Chlorine-containing products, quat-containing products, and hydrogen-peroxide-containing substitutes produce chemical byproducts that pose substantial health risks, especially for those exposed on a consistent basis like janitors and cleaning staff. 

Both of these downsides can be remedied through increasing ventilation rates, either mechanically or manually (opening windows), and using safer cleaning products (soap and water instead of chemical cleaners) when possible, but there is a catch. 

Wintertime COVID-19 Challenges

The winter months pose additional challenges, as heating frigid outdoor air and introducing it to occupied spaces can have two negative impacts. The temperature inside can become uncomfortably cold for building occupants, and relative humidity levels can drop and create safety issues. These two conditions have ramifications for both sick building syndrome and the coronavirus; cold air can increase people’s susceptibility to infection, and dry air can limit people’s ability to fight COVID-19 and increase rates of transmission. 

Because of the relationship between ventilation, temperature, and relative humidity, the best reopening plans feature a well-rounded, comprehensive approach to limiting transmission and often include environmental monitoring to keep tabs on these factors.  

Ways the COVID-19 Pandemic Has Improved the Health and Safety of Buildings

Despite the harms of over-sanitization, the awareness that COVID-19 has brought to indoor air quality has led to great improvements in the health and safety of the built environment. We are more concerned than ever about the healthiness of buildings, and indoor air quality has naturally risen to the top of the priority list. Anything that improves indoor air quality will most likely help stop both COVID-19 and sick building syndrome.

Ventilation, for instance, is key for both COVID-19 and SBS risk reductions. Outdoor air is free of COVID-19 droplets and indoor chemicals, so increasing the introduction of fresh air both lowers the risk of COVID-19 and reduces the presence of indoor air pollutants that contribute to sick building syndrome. 

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When used in conjunction with ventilation, optimizing relative humidity levels has the dual benefit of lowering the infectiousness of potential airborne viruses and increasing building occupant comfort. The same moderate humidity bands, between 40% and 60%, that are most comfortable for people also stimulate the decay of viruses. Increasing the efficiency of air filtration helps remove COVID-19 from indoor air at higher rates, and the indoor air quality benefits of this action are readily apparent. 

Overall, the changes that COVID-19 has brought to all of our lives have had some positive and negative impacts on the prevalence of sick building syndrome. As we go forward, we need to ensure that the dangers of over disinfection are addressed through safer product alternatives and sufficient ventilation, and that we carry the lessons we learned from the COVID-19 pandemic to other facets of healthy building. 

For more strategies for managing COVID-19, read the article below:

Air Quality Guide for Reopening