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Career Challenge

When the Atmosphere at Work Is Just Unbearable

* Building-related illnesses can be hard to spot and often go undiagnosed, but many are preventable.

July 22, 2001|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In office buildings throughout the country, something's in the air that's affecting as many as 21 million workers, according to the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

About 1.34 million American office buildings have air quality problems that can lead to employee health risks, the agency estimates.

Over the last decade, physicians' caseloads for building-related illnesses have increased more than 40%, according to BusinessWeek. Still, many such ailments go undiagnosed. Workers visit physicians complaining of chronic symptoms that worsen on the job, but the doctors can pinpoint no cause.

Some refer to these work-related syndromes as "office-itis" or "Monday morning blahs," blaming them on psychological problems or stress when in fact they are caused by workplace environment problems.

"Work is under-recognized as a cause of problems," said Linda Rosenstock, dean of UCLA's School of Public Health and a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

There are many reasons diagnosis of indoor air-related ailments has proved so difficult. Pollutants can trigger different reactions in workers. Some remain unaffected while others with asthma, allergies, respiratory diseases or compromised immune systems experience severe symptoms.

Pollutants' potency, quantity and exposure duration can vary markedly within an office, as when one workstation is beneath a dirty air vent. And though individual contaminant levels may be below suggested workplace exposure standards, in combination, the pollutants can prove hazardous, said Dr. Kent Peterson, president of Occupational Health Strategies in Charlottesville, Va.

Indoor air levels for many pollutants can be two to five times higher--and sometimes more than 100 times higher--than outdoor levels, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which over the last 25 years has identified measurable levels of more than 107 known carcinogens in offices.

"There isn't typically any single substance causing the problems," said Timothy Morse, assistant professor at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, Conn. "It's low-quality air."

Some workers' symptoms--headache, fatigue, dizziness, nausea and impaired judgment--can be compounded by factors other than indoor pollutants, such as inadequate lighting, noise, vibration, ergonomic discomfort and job-related stress.

Frequently, these factors are the exclusive cause of employees' complaints, said Stuart Salot, president of CTL Environmental Services in Harbor City.

"We don't deny that people's symptoms are real," he said. "But about 90% of the time, we don't find a smoking gun, any single causative agent."

That knowledge is little consolation to "sick-building syndrome" sufferers, many of whom only know that their symptoms get worse while they are at work and lessen when they are away.

Diana Scott, an attorney at Greenberg Traurig in Santa Monica, has dealt with sick-building syndrome both professionally, in her capacity as an employment lawyer, and personally, as an allergy sufferer whose condition worsened during the 11 years she was a tenant in dusty downtown Los Angeles offices.

"In the winter months, when they turned on their heating systems, you could just smell and feel the dust in the air," she said.

Scott intermittently suffered from a chronic cough and watery eyes. She kept an air filter in her offices and said she had to work at home on a few occasions. Her symptoms improved five years ago when she relocated to her present office, she said.

During the 1970s energy crisis, sealed buildings were designed to cut costs. Because their windows were permanently shut, they contained mechanical ventilation systems to exchange indoor air with relatively cleaner outdoor air.

But unforeseen stressors, including higher occupancy rates and contaminant-generating office equipment and supplies, have taxed the sealed buildings' heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems, or HVAC.

Overcrowded conditions in some offices have increased transmission of illnesses such as flu, colds and measles and also have raised carbon dioxide levels.

Common office fixtures such as printers, computers, copy machines, solvents, toner, paints, furniture, fabrics and marking pens emit volatile organic compounds that, even at low exposures, can affect individuals' ability to concentrate, according to a Danish study.

Many office buildings are poorly designed. Their air intake vents are over loading docks and in parking garages, permitting vehicle exhaust fumes to circulate throughout workplaces. Others, whose smoking occupants congregate outside entranceways, have revolving doors that suck secondhand smoke back indoors.

Cost-Cutting Can

Exacerbate Problems

Some building engineers try to cut costs by reducing outdoor air exchange rates and shutting off ventilation during non-work hours.

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