We all know the philosophical question: "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? The whole sick building question is pretty much the same question: If nobody is sick in the building, is it a sick building?
Health reactions to a building environment are dependent upon the occupants. When it comes to potential environmental problems, we are each the sum of our genetics, health history and current health. The buildings don’t get sick, the people do.
It’s like Mr. Rogers of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood would say at the end of every show: “There's no person in the whole world like you”. That also goes for your health and what factors can influence your health.
As an example, Legionella has a 5% infection rate. That means that 95 out of 100 occupants of a building harboring the bacteria will not get Legionnaires Disease. That could mean that the building may never be identified as a “Sick Building”
What can Make the Occupants of a Building Sick?
It can be mold, off-gassing from the thousands of new and untested products we put into homes, combustion or industrial gasses or the myriad of bacteria, viruses and other contagions that can be brought into any building. That complexity of possible causes of illness complicated by individual occupant reactions to different exposures makes environmental investigations “CSI for buildings”
Environmental Risks and Hazards are not a New Problem
We shouldn’t ignore the old issues of centuries ago. Leviticus 14 of the Bible discusses mold in homes. World history includes plagues and diseases that almost wiped out major segments of past civilizations.
We can only eliminate environmental hazards that can affect people when we identify them. We need to put up our hands and demand assessment and testing when health reactions lead us to suspect them.
We now know that water problems can be a source of mold. Sewage can harbor the diseases that devastated civilizations. We have developed understanding about those issues, but still often fall short in avoiding these contaminants in individual cases.
Lead is credited as a major factor in the fall of the Roman Empire, yet we have lead in the water supply of major cities like Flint and Pittsburgh. Imported dark color plastic toys, decorations, mascara, china dishes and crayons are still often sources of toxic lead.