In 1984, the World Health Organization published a report determining the cause of sick building syndrome, in which the cumulative effects of bad ventilation, VOC offgassing, and certain building materials were found to make people who work in affected buildings sick. Main symptoms of sick building syndrome (SBS) are headache, nausea and dizziness, cough, eye nose and throat irritation, and up to forty or so other possible ailments. Because the causes of SBS vary, so do their effects.

If you or a coworker have health problems that seem to be triggered by or worsened by your job or school environment, it’s probably not that you are allergic to doing your work! There might very well be something in your environment that is causing the problem. Because many buildings in use today were built in the 1970’s and 1980’s (when knowledge of indoor air quality was low, and designers considered it smart to seal a building off from outside air flow), they may have high levels of indoor air pollution. This is especially true of buildings that do not have windows that open, have old or malfunctioning HVAC units (the heating, cooling and air exchange systems), or may be infested with toxic mold. Newer buildings may also cause health difficulties in some people (or even just a remodeled floor) because of the chemicals released by new furniture, paint and carpeting.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) are what create the ‘new’ smell of fresh paint, new cars, carpet and plastic furniture once it is removed from its packaging. The Environmental Protection Agency has found that many indoor areas (including homes) have VOC concentrations 10 times higher than outside air In some cases of poor ventilation, VOC’s can be 1,000 times higher. (Read more about the health effects of VOC’s on page 90). It’s not surprising that  this kind of exposure can make some people, especially those who have a compromised immune system or other illness, feel quite ill.

Your workplace or school might be a candidate for SBS if symptoms experienced inside the building are reduced once outside, during times spent away from the building, or are seasonally related.

Some 'sick buildings' can be rehabbed; potential solutions might include: replacement of insulation, removal of mold, better ventilation, or repair of HVAC systems. Buildings with endemic problems might need to be demolished.

Your Work or School Environment: Toxic or Not?

So how to determine if your school or work environment might be toxic to your health? Take this quiz:

1. Was your school or office recently renovated (think new carpets, fresh paint, or significant new furniture) in the last year or two?

2. Do you notice a distinctive smell when you walk into your place of work, such as printing toner, a plastic odor, exhaust, or another chemical-type smell that is different from the outside air?

3. After spending time in your office or classrooms, do you develop headaches, are your eyes burning, do you sneeze often, get a scratchy throat, or is your breathing more difficult?

4. Are the windows sealed off or unopenable at your workplace or school?

5. Do you work with potentially hazardous or toxic substances, chemicals or compounds?

6. Is your building more than 10 years old?

If you answered yes to two or more of the above questions, you are probably being exposed to higher than ideal levels of toxins. This doesn’t mean you need to quit your job or stop going to school! There are some proactive steps you can take. First, leave windows open whenever possible, so that fresh air can be exchanged regularly. If your windows don’t open, go outside on your breaks and lunch hours to give your body a break from exposure to the volatile organic compounds like benzene, styrene, tolulene and other chemicals. If you work with paints, chemicals, in a lab, or have other exposures to toxic or potentially toxic substances, make sure to follow all the rules set up by your workplace. And do some research on your own to find out what in your regular environment may have long-term effects on your health. If you work in a nail spa, for instance, you can go online to find out about the chemicals in the polish and remover, and what you can do to prevent yourself from inhaling them.  If you spend time in your school’s chemistry lab and work with substances that you know the chemical equation for, but not their toxicity to humans, find out. (The Cleaner Indoor Air Campaign is a clearinghouse of links and resources if you need more information on the topic of workplace safety.) Remember, it’s the exposures that you experience on a regular basis that will have a cumulative effect on your body and your health.

Lastly, if you are experiencing health issues you suspect are caused by your workplace or school, see your doctor, and think about what kind of action you want to take. A simple discussion with your boss about opening windows or setting up ventilation fans might solve the problem. Additional, specialized air filters are another option if you have nonopening windows or a building with a closed HVAC system. If your health is truly compromised by the environment at school or work, however, taking action now is imperative—don’t wait until it’s too late.

How To Green Your Office

Now that your work place is safe and healthy, consider greening the rest of your office routine.  Just remember, unless you own your own company or run your own business (and huge congratulations if you do!), speak with your boss and/or office manager before you try to make ANY changes. Don’t just wander into a busy person’s office and say something like, “This place could be way greener don’t you think?” or “Let’s be more environmentally sensitive!”
Instead, go in with a cohesive plan of attack, and start by mentioning that many of the below changes will save money. Follow with any suggestions that will save time, and then extol the environmental benefits of these easy alterations. Back your argument up with numbers (think about doing some calculations and coming up with specific savings in dollar amounts, or even going crazy and making a spreadsheet!). Lastly, don’t try to do everything at once. Suggest two or three modest changes; once those have gone into effect without great disruption, and once the benefits are obvious, try a second round of more ambitious suggestions.

Save Money

Cut Down on Paper Use: Reuse paper for printers and copiers that has already been printed on one side. If everyone prints to a centralized printer, it’s as simple as having one tray with the reused paper, and one with clean paper. If you can’t reuse paper, make sure that people are printing double-sided copies, which is an available feature on most newer copiers and printers. If your office ends up using 1/3 less paper, that's 1/3 the cost of paper used every year that's saved. 

Switch Bulbs: Just like at home, using CFL’s instead of incandescent bulbs saves money and energy. CFL’s use 50-80% less energy and last ten times longer than traditional bulbs. A typical office uses up to 30% of its electricity just for lighting, so switching bulbs could save serious cash.

Use Soy Ink: Choose soy over traditional petroleum-based inks. They cost about the same, but less ink is used per print, so the ink lasts longer, saving money. Also, they emit fewer chemicals into the air when printing, so your office air will be cleaner.

Turn Off Computers: If every computer were shut off at night, every night, we would be able to shut down eight power plants and keep 7 million tons of CO2 out of the air. Contrary to popular belief, shutting computers off and turning them back on does not use more energy than leaving them on, so encourage people to put their computer on sleep mode (or just turn off the monitor) when they are going to be away from their desks, and make it an office policy to shut them off at night.

Carpool: Someone in the office might have to coordinate carpooling, matching people and routes together. It might not save your company money, but it will save individuals plenty, and help reduce congestion for everyone. There are regional carpooling services online as well; try Googling the name of your city and “carpool.” Also, give incentives to people who walk, take public transportation, or ride their bikes to work. Make sure there are bike racks available, and that there are safe ways to get to and from bus or train stops to the office. You could even try to convince your boss to let employees work four days a week for ten hours a day, instead of five eight-hour days, cutting a whole day of transportation emissions out (not to mention office costs). 

Buy Energy Star: When replacing any office equipment, whether a refrigerator, computer monitor, or copier, look for the EnergyStar logo and try to find the unit that will use the least energy.

Save the Environment

Switch to Recycled Paper: For copiers and printers, make sure that you buy the one with the highest amount of post-consumer content in it. Look for PCF (processed chlorine free) paper, which will have recycled content; chlorine used in paper bleaching pollutes local water supplies.

Use Non-Toxic Cleaning Supplies: Traditional supplies ultimately pollute bodies of water and they stay in the office air long after cleaning is over, contributing to toxic indoor air. Use natural products, and buy in bulk to save money and packaging.

Make Sure Recyclables Are Really Recycled: Each person’s desk should have both a regular trash can and a receptacle for recycling paper. In many offices, two bins exist, but cleaning people dump all of the waste into one bag, without recycling. Check to make sure paper is being collected separately from the garbage. If it’s not, speak with the cleaning company and make it clear that paper (and other recyclables, like glass and aluminum) need to be dealt with properly. 

Bring a Mug to Work: Instead of paper, or even worse, plastic cups and disposable spoons, go to Goodwill or Salvation Army and pick up a collection of mugs for people in your office. You should be able to find plenty of mugs for less than a dollar apiece. Or you can ask everyone who drinks coffee regularly to bring in their own mugs from home, so each person has the responsibility for their own.

From The Eco Chick Guide to Life: How to be Fabulously Green by Starre Vartan.  Copyright © 2008 by the author. Reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Griffin.

This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2008

Copyright Environ Press 2008