Sick building syndrome industry grows

By Ronald E. Gots
Copyright 1998, Scripps Howard
May 10, 1998

(May 10, 1998 07:14 a.m. EDT - Ten years ago I spoke at an international meeting of indoor-air specialists. There were 200 attendees. Six years later when I spoke at a similar meeting held by the same organization, 10,000 people attended.

Does this explosive increase in interest reflect increased understanding of a new disorder, as occurred with AIDS?

Not at all. It is due instead to the misperception and exaggeration of a problem -- so-called "sick building syndrome."

An entire new industry has emerged to deal with sick building syndrome and now all these specialists are in search of a problem. And as often happens, when there are plenty of problem-solvers around, a problem will be found.

A February 1997 incident at Washington's Reagan National Airport illustrates the point. When someone reported smelling a "noxious gas" in a terminal, evacuation was ordered. Hundreds of people fell ill. A hazardous-materials crew in protective suits combed the building and found the culprit -- rotting bananas in a trash can.

Such occurrences are not unusual. In 1992, air-quality consultants forced immediate evacuation of a Florida courthouse, built just three years earlier at a cost of $11 million, proclaiming that mold in the building placed occupants at risk of cancer. Renovation of the courthouse, overseen by the same consultants, cost an additional $9.5 million.

But that wasn't the end of the story. In legal actions, former occupants of the courthouse have alleged they were injured by the mold. But if such mold was really a problem, hundreds of thousands of Floridians would be suffering because all buildings in humid South Florida contain mold.

In 1992, several dozen employees of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claimed their building made them sick. They forced the closing of the building and the relocation of their offices. Yet no tests have confirmed their alleged illnesses, much less a building-related cause.

How did this anxiety over indoor air develop? It may have begun with the death of 29 members of the American Legion who attended a 1976 convention at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia. Mysteriously, 182 of the conventioneers contracted a form of pneumonia that was later called "Legionnaires' disease." Eventually the disease was traced to a bacterium (Legionella pneumophila) in the hotel's air-conditioning system. Whenever the system was on, it spewed bacteria through the air vents. In this case, both the identity of the culprit and the identity of the disease became clear-cut. At the time of the 1976 American Legion convention, the Bellevue Stratford Hotel was indeed hazardous.

When people die from contaminated indoor air, as did the American Legion conventioneers, the clinical "end point" is unequivocal -- death. But most health phenomena associated with indoor air are far less well defined. They center on nonspecific health problems, such as headaches, tiredness, difficulty in concentrating and dryness of the eyes and mouth. Hundreds of conditions -- ranging from hay fever and other common allergies to stress and job dissatisfaction -- can cause such problems. Limiting one's attention only to those factors that are airborne can be expedient and profitable -- and totally wrong as well.

Perhaps no industry better exemplifies the old adage "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" than the indoor-air industry. Some of those who claim that indoor air problems pose serious public-health risks have used flawed survey techniques to bolster their claims. For example, in a nationwide telephone survey conducted in 1987, 24 percent of the 600 office workers interviewed said there were air-quality problems in their offices and 10 percent said such problems interfered with their productivity. The researcher extrapolated these figures to the entire country and announced that 800,000 to 1,200,000 commercial buildings in the United States were breeding grounds for "sick building syndrome." The researcher further suggested that 30 million to 70 million occupants were affected. This non-scientific survey has been cited over and over again not only by indoor-air "specialist," but by government agencies as well.

Anecdotal reports of "sick building syndrome" are a poor substitute for scientific evidence. The symptoms generally attributed to indoor air pollution can be caused by any number of factors, including a high outdoor pollen count, common cold viruses or even workforce discontent.

In responding to such complaints, government and business should apply a simple, common-sense rule: confirm before you act.

Ronald E. Gots, M.D., Ph.D., head of the International Center for Toxicology and Medicine in Rockville, MD, wrote this article for Priorities, the magazine of the American Council on Science and Health. He is the co-author of "Chemical Sensitivity: The Truth About Environmental Illness", Prometheus Books, 1998. Distributed by the Scripps Howard News Service

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