Detect and Prevent Sick Building Syndrome With IoT

IoT sensors can help building managers detect Sick Building Syndrome (SBS)— when building occupants get sick as a result of spending time in buildings with poor air quality—and keep it at bay in the future.

Cem Alptekin
A building with a box of tissues, a mug and glasses
Illustration: © IoT For All

While the words “air pollution” often make people conjure up images of smog over a busy highway, it’s becoming increasingly clear that indoor air is also problematic. In countries like the U.S., pollutants are often produced by human activities and exacerbated by the buildings we spend the most time in, like offices and apartment complexes. After spending nine or more hours at a time daily in a building with bad air quality, it’s no wonder people get sick. 

Every facility manager and landlord should be keenly aware of the potential for “sick building syndrome” (SBS)—a term used to describe the plight of building occupants who suffer physical ailments as a result of spending time in affected buildings—and ways to prevent it. Not only is SBS a detriment to public health, but it’s also bad for business, severely impacting the productivity of your employees. (Not to mention how a “sick building” label would detract from your company or property’s appeal.) 

So how can you improve the indoor environmental quality of your building? Many building managers are starting to employ IoT to help keep sick building syndrome at bay.

Diagnosing Sick Building Syndrome With IoT

With the symptoms of SBS ranging from watery eyes, itchy skin and dizziness to nausea, heart palpitations, and shortness of breath (and many things in between), it can be a challenge to know whether the building is the problem. But if 20% or more of the occupants have issues like these while inside the building—and their symptoms generally ease when they are elsewhere—it’s wise to investigate the possibility that your facility’s indoor air is not up to par.  

If you suspect your building might have an issue, you can find out more about your air quality using IoT sensors. Advanced technology has brought down the cost of indoor air quality testing by creating smaller, less expensive sensors; you’ll need enough to place them strategically throughout your building to produce reliable results. (The EPA recommends one sensor for every 10,000 square feet.) Sensor measuring will reveal certain air quality characteristics that contribute to sick building syndrome cases, specifically: 

  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—These are the main contributors to poor indoor air quality. VOCs are organic chemicals emitted as gases from products or processes; for the most part, you can smell their presence. Typical sources of VOCs indoors include things like building materials, furniture, cleaning agents, disinfectants, air fresheners, dehumidifiers and more. Anything over 500 ug/m3 is outside the recommended parameters for indoor air quality.
  • Carbon dioxide (CO2)—Moderate to high levels of CO2 can have a negative impact on occupants’ health, causing nausea, dizziness and vomiting. About 700 parts per million (ppm) above outside air levels (usually about 1,000 to 1,200 ppm) is recommended.  
  • High humidity—Mold can begin to form as a result of high humidity; also, the rate at which chemicals are released from building materials is usually higher at higher building temperatures. Humidity should be below 60%—preferably somewhere between 30% and 50% to avoid sick building syndrome, according to the EPA. 

Test on different floors of your building and in different locations. In some cases, SBS may be localized, caused by something specific nearby, or it may be a problem everywhere. 

If your testing does reveal problems, you can also use the sensors to further hone in on the culprit. For example, is the carpet emitting VOCs? Place the sensors right on the carpet to see how VOC levels are impacted. Generally the farther you get away from a contaminant the less potent the reading will be. 

To improve your indoor air quality, you need to understand what may have gone wrong. Common contributors to sick building syndrome, according to OSHA, include: 

  • A lack of ventilation/lack of fresh outdoor air
  • Poor upkeep of HVAC systems
  • Dampness, moisture and high humidity
  • Construction, remodeling or other, similar activities

The approach you’ll take to improve it may depend on a number of factors, including your individual building, the outdoor environment, and the extent of the problem. 

Prevent Sick Building Syndrome With IoT

All you need to be proactive about identifying and addressing air quality issues is a reliable indoor air quality monitoring system. Using IoT sensors on a daily basis will give you real-time insight into your building’s environmental conditions. Specifically, they enable you to be proactive about preventing sick building syndrome in three ways:

  • By alerting you to the presence of contaminants that could impact occupants’ health, including VOCs and particulate matter. 
  • By helping you maintain the appropriate indoor temperature and humidity, reducing mold growth and increasing comfort level.
  • By preventing an excess of carbon dioxide in the air. Sometimes, in an effort to save energy, ventilation systems are prevented from pulling in enough outdoor air to maintain an appropriate, healthful balance. Many facilities managers are now implementing demand control ventilation systems that help save energy (and therefore reduce operating costs) while still maintaining adequate air quality for occupants.

Keep in mind that SBS can occur in any building, new or old. While old buildings may be more susceptible to mold or other issues, newer buildings were sometimes designed to be overly airtight in an effort to use less energy bringing in and conditioning outside air. Monitoring indoor air quality must be made a priority to avoid not bringing in the appropriate amount of outside air. And fairly new buildings might have carpeting or furniture that emits VOCs and contributes to poor quality air. One thing, however, is clear: The more you can do to promote good quality air, the better off your occupants—and your business—will be.

Cem Alptekin
Cem Alptekin
Cem Alptekin is the SVP of Operations at Iota Communications, where Cem and his Iota team are building the first dedicated, low-cost, nationwide IoT network using FCC-licensed radio spectrum. Mr. Alptekin brings to the team over 29 years of engine...
Cem Alptekin is the SVP of Operations at Iota Communications, where Cem and his Iota team are building the first dedicated, low-cost, nationwide IoT network using FCC-licensed radio spectrum. Mr. Alptekin brings to the team over 29 years of engine...