Sick Building Syndrome

It is one thing to realize the air you breathe in your own home is toxic. Because it is your home, you have full control over the pace and scope of the cleanup effort.

But when you think the air you have to breathe all day at work is making you sick, you are just one voice. It can feel a lot more complex and stressful to tackle the need for better indoor air quality with your employer.

In this post, learn the warnings signs that your workplace indoor air may be toxic. Also find out the best ways to approach your employer about the issue and get results.

Canada’s “General Duty Clause”

According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), poor indoor air quality falls under the umbrella of the “general duty clause.” This clause states that all Canadian employers must provide their employees with a “safe and healthy workplace.”

This is especially important to know going into any commercial complaint and resolution process, because otherwise, each jurisdiction throughout Canada retains autonomy in setting their own air quality legislation.

Is Your Building Sick?

“Sick building syndrome” is one of several nicknames used to describe buildings suspected of containing health-harming toxins. Typically, the first step to determine whether or not a building may be “sick” is to keep a log of physical symptoms.

The most common symptoms reported by employees who have worked in a sick building are as follows:

  • Dry or itchy eyes
  • Runny nose or congested sinuses
  • Sneezing or coughing
  • Fatigue
  • Mental fogginess or trouble concentrating
  • Chronic headaches
  • Feelings of nausea or dizziness
  • Trouble breathing
  • Increased allergy symptoms

One potential key to determine whether the health symptoms you are experiencing are specifically linked to your office is to notice when the symptoms begin and when they end. If your symptoms typically begin to appear after you have entered your workplace and dissipate within a few hours of leaving, not to return until the next time you go to work, it is quite likely indoor air toxins at your office are the culprit.

Types of Commercial Air Toxins

Some toxins that can infiltrate our indoor air are the same at home as at work.

Examples of these toxins include the following:

  • Fragrances, deodorizers, and air fresheners
  • Cleaning products
  • Mould, fungi or mildew
  • Dust mites, dust, pollen, and dirt
  • Carbon dioxide (CO2)
  • Tobacco fumes or smoke

However, there are some toxins that can infiltrate the indoor air that are much more commonly seen in commercial workplaces and/or industrial situations, such as these:

  • Ozone (office equipment, motors, electrostatic air cleaning machines)
  • VOCs (volatile organic compounds coming from workplace chemicals)
  • Gases and vapours (from manufacturing or industrial processes, vehicle exhaust)
  • Formaldehyde, fibreglass, asbestos (from commercial building materials)
  • Sewage leaks
  • Carbon monoxide leaks
  • Dust from heavy construction

Other Contributors to Toxic Workplace Air

In addition to known poisons, toxins, and contaminants, there are other factors that can exacerbate the overall toxicity of the indoor air you have to breathe at work. Some of these factors may come as a surprise, but their interactions with already sick indoor air can make mild health symptoms become much worse.


In moderate amounts, humidity can help keep your air passages moist and healthy. But if the indoor air at your workplace contains more than 50 percent humidity, the conditions are ripe for mould, mildew, and fungi to bloom and spread.


Poor ventilation at your workplace can trap increasing amounts of aggravating toxins in the air that continuously recycle throughout the air duct system. Without adequate ventilation, not enough clean new air is coming in to keep your indoor air supply fresh.

Clogged air ducts

In many workplaces, the air duct system is not only outdated but also hasn’t been cleaned in decades, if ever. The air duct system is what everyone relies on to keep temperature- and humidity-controlled indoor air circulating throughout the office. As more and more dust, debris, and toxins get trapped in the duct system, it gets packed into an ever-thicker inner layer that in time can block the ducts entirely and cause a fire hazard (not to mention a wide range of health symptoms).


Harsh indoor lighting not only causes eye strain and increased stress, but some types of bulbs (particularly CFLs, or compact fluorescent light bulbs, which contain mercury) can emit gases and toxins of their own.

What to Do First….and Next

Your first step is to keep a log of your symptoms, including start and stop times. Do this for at least a week or two so you can establish if there is a pattern that may be linked to your workplace indoor air.

Your next step is to connect with your boss, building management, and/or leader of your workplace health and safety team to ask for an indoor air quality test.

If your initial request is denied, you can contact your local government jurisdiction’s Workplace Safety division for further assistance.

If your initial request is approved, you can ask to be informed of next steps and action items.

In the meantime, you should make an appointment with your health care provider to receive any medical treatment you may need to ease your health symptoms.

Contact Clean Air Solutions for Help

Clean Air Solutions has been serving our commercial and residential customers in the Hamilton and surrounding areas for nearly a century. We offer a comprehensive menu of air quality services, including indoor air quality testing, air duct cleaning, dryer vent cleaning, and mattress cleaning. Our high-quality air purification, ventilation, humidifier/dehumidifier, and filtration products keep your indoor air pure and fresh.

Call us at 905-544-2470 or visit us anytime online to schedule your free initial consultation.

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