MCS: Allergy, Books, CRT probs, Doc probs, Food rotation,
Immune, Sick bld, Shop, Body temp

Sick Buildings

Review of the PBS NOVA Show

Permission granted to copy this review as long as copied intact with all URLs and this notice.
I found NOVA Episode on Sick Building Syndrome very much worth watching, and worth dragging anyone else you can in to see it! It may be worth renting, and I will include a more specific URL or other information regarding rentals when I get it. The KQED URL is also repeated at the bottom, along with refernces to other resources, and other sick building references / lecture notes, etc. from Cornell U, and elsewhere.

This show appeared on KQED, a member of the Public Broadcasting System, on Tuesday, December 27, 1995. It can be seen on numerous PBS affiliated TV stations across the United States at various times. Many PBS stations rebroadcast NOVA several times in the same week. Transcripts can be ordered from PBS at 800-831-9000.

Here is a summary based on notes I took during the show. There is some startling new information here -- lighting and other unexpected factors were shown to cause some of the sick building symptoms in some cases.

--------------------------------------------------------------- The NOVA Sick building show started out as a factual report that there are sick buildings, then went on to examine several well known cases.

Norfolk House, London, Ingland

In the first case, 94% of the employees reported some problems, with symptoms including headaches, typically across the forehead, dryness or watering of the eyes, lethargy, and problems with the nose and throat; usually beginning some hours after arrival at work, and dissipating some hours after leaving the building. Drs. Berge and Robertsen, part of an international team investigating sick buildings, were called in to investigate. Based upon employee interviews, they concluded there was something there.

A lighting specialist, Arnold Wilkins, started investigating the complaints of harsh lighting. Flourescent lights flicker at 100 flashes per second in Enbland, where the AC mains are run at 50 cycles per second. (In America, with the 60 cycle per second AC supply, flourescent bulbs will flash at 120 times per second.) While one can not see this flashing consciously, Mr. Wilkins proposed and then proved that this 100 hz flickering does cause problems with the eyes ability to track, resulting in a lot of overscanning and correcting movements.

By secretly changing to special flouresent lights which flash 20 thousand times per second instead of the usual 100 flashes per second, he cut the headaches in half!

[Comment: If this flashing seems to be a problem, then one wonders how much of a problem certain low frequency rumbles in the air conditioning can be to some people. This was not investigated by the show, but may be of merit. There are a number of devices on the market using blinking lights or sounds to entrain (synchronize and control) brain waves in this manner for theraputic and recreational uses. Rumble at 12 cycles per second has been said to be highly disconcerting to some, prompting an adrenal responce. Blinking and sounds in the Alpha range are known to cause passivity not unlike meditation in some people. Rumbles at frequencies below five cycles per second may couple with the brain's Delta brainwave, possibly causing lethargy and sleepiness in some people. I once encountered a large room in a crowded office building which was vacant save for perhaps five people. The room held over fifty vacant cubicles despite crowding in other parts of the department. Employees refered to the area as "The Tombs", and avoided it. It may not have been coincidental that the air conditioning rumble in that room was well within the Delta brain wave frequency range...]

People vary enourmosly in their sensitivity to different factors. It is believed that the combined loading of lighting, airborne chemicals and microorganisms, as well as sociological factors, all add up to a loading factor. When this is exceeded, the stress results in broad scale employee complaints.

Birminham, Alabama Five-Ways House

Two buildings were compared after complaints started comming in regarding the newer of the buildings in the complex. The old building had user openable windows, the new one had closed windows and air conditioning.

Typical problems with air conditioning are usually caused by improper system setup, unexpected alterations, covering inlets and outlets, as well as unanticipated changes in loading factors and distribution caused by changes by space planners. These can cause uneven air velocities resulting in dead spots without adequate air turnover as well as areas with excess velocities and irritating drafts.

In this case the typical air tests were applied: 
  * CO2 build-up   (staleness)
  * humidity
  * temperature
  * dust
  * fungi
  * other microorganisms
  * dust mites
  * fiberglass and other fiber fragments.
One typical complaint in some settings is Humidifier Fever -- flu-like symptoms and breathing difficulties caused by stagnant water standing in a reservoir feeding some humidifiers. This occurs more often in printeries and other manufacturing plants where the air has to be maintained at a higher humidity due to process or materials used in the factory.

The humidification equipment was replaced by a reservoirless system that drew water directly from the plumbing as needed. This, in itself, was not enough.

Molds fungi and insects living in ducting systems are often made worse by attempts at cutting costs by increasing air recirculation. In this case, the factors were shown as well within acceptable norms found in buildings without problems.

Boston, Mass. - DMV April 1994.

The Department of Motor Vehicles in Boston moved from an old drafty building to a new high rise building. Within six months, over 50 percent of employees had health complaints and some were beginning to have the kind of respirational asthma problems usually found in chemicals factories. The complaints were remarkably consistent across the building and from employee to employee. Many employees quit, causing additional concerns on the part of management. Investigations were initiated.

At one point, high latex levels forced the shutdown of a floor.

The problem was traced to the design of the air handling system which used the space above the ceiling tiles as a plenum, rather than relying on the more traditional ductwork. The ceiling tiles were very cheap, made of perlite, cellulose, and other materials glued together with a cheap starch based glue. As the warm moist outdoor air was mixed with cold recirculated air in this above ceiling space, condensation resulted in the ceiling tiles actually FERMENTING, releasing butyric acid and other fermentation products into the air!

A second factor was the fireproofing used in this area. The movement of air and other factors resulted in this material eroding, sending particulates into the air and showering the work area. Some laboratory workers handling this material during testing actually developed a rash from it!

As testing was going on, 80% of the people began getting sick, prompting the Department Public Health to order the building evacuated. Employees went back to the old building. At the time of the report, the new building is empty, the subject of litigation between the state and the builders.

EPA - Washington DC

The EPA building underwent a major renovation with thousands of square feet of new carpeting being installed. Shortly thereafter, 60 people became sick, and ten had to be hospitalized. Tests showed that chemicals, mostly from the carpets, were in the ten parts per billion range, very low compared to some industrial settings. Yet, some people were shown to be sensitive to long term exposure even at those levels.

Brigham and Woman's Hospital - Boston, 1993

Many hospitals are reporting an increase in sick building like problems. In this case, symptoms including chest pains, swelling, skin rashes and such on the part of nurses forced closing of five (sterile) operating rooms.

Investigation revealed that Latex allergies were the primary problems for many employees, building up on all surfaces of the building over time. This was in part traced to manufacturing shortcuts some companies had taken due to the rising demand for gloves as precautions against AIDS. Some brands were lofting more latex particles during removal. Major efforts were made to buy only gloves lofting lower quantities of particulates, and to keep surfaces clean.

Yet this was not enough. 47 nurses ended up on disability leave. Investigations continued.

Another problem proved to be the sterilizer chemical Gluteraldehyde. (sp?) Remedies included pouring sterilizer chemicals as opposed to spraying, enclosing sterilization areas and venting them outside, and changing to other agents like hydrogen peroxide where possible.

During this time, some of the nurses came down with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities Syndrome. This happens when a person is exposed to a sensitizing chemical, either one concentrated exposure or multiple exposures on a long term basis.

In a normal allergic situation, immunoglobulins precipitate allergic reactions. This can be measured and used as proof of real allergic problems. But in MCS, blood does not always have the tell-tale immunoglobulin response. Physicians are taught in medical school that the more symptoms a person has, the more likely the cause is "psychogenic". With the lack of an immunoglobulin response and multiple vague symptoms, this is not as easy to refute.

More than 50 employees of Brigham and Women's hospital have filed lawsuits regarding compensation for their illnesses.

Air handling systems at this hospital are now undergoing multi-million dollar upgrades.

This NOVA episode concludes with the comment that the indoor environments we have created in these buildings are taking their toll.

This review was made to encourage others to view the show. We take no responsibility for errors in this review or the program.

For further information, check:

Cornell University Lectures

Biogenic Particles
Biogenic Particles (Sick Building Syndrome)
Ventilation Lecture 2 (Sick Building Syndrome)
Acoustics Lecture 2

Other MCS Articles

Related Resources:

Allergy * Candida and Yeast * Chronic Fatigue * Immune
Enviro Illness and Multi-Chem Sensitivity
Health * Other Medical Links

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