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'Sick' buildings exert stressful impact.

Call it the edifice complex: People working in the same building complain of headaches, fatigue, eye irritation, dizziness, itchy skin and other symptoms that intensify during the workday but abate in the evening and on weekends. No known toxins or diseases cause these physical problems. Sufferers learn to dread the workplace, and supervisors may question their emotional stability and motivation.

Scientists call this problem sick building syndrome, or SBS (SN: 10/19/91, p.247). Most SBS sufferers react to "real environmental contaminants," psychologist Russell M. Bauer of the University of Florida in Gainesville and his colleagues report in the April Journal of Consulating and Clinical Psychology. The investigators assert, however, that psychological reactions often make SBS symptoms worse, particularly if a building remains contaminated or if physical complaints get dismissed as "hysterical reactions."

Some recent reports suggest that SBS stems from increased levels of dust or airborne chemicals, caused in some way by mechanical ventilation systems, fluorescent lighting or building materials. Others find evidence that SBS spreads among employees troubled by some form of stress at work and possible hampered by preexisting psychological problems.

"There is often an organic cause for SBS that is difficult to identify," says psychologist Christopher M. Ryan of the University of Pittsburgh, who studies behavioral reactions to toxic substances. "There may also be psychological causes, but little is known about psychological factors associated with SBS."

Bauer's group administered health and psychological surveys to 111 people. Of that number, 27 worked in a building where they had complained of SBS symptoms for up to two years; 58 worked in the same building but had not experienced SBS; and 26 controls worked for the same company in a different building where no SBS complaints had surfaced.

The two groups working in the same building scored similarly on psychological measures, including depression, paranoia and a history of vague physical complaints. But these employees showed elevated measures compared with workers in the control building. This suggests that "working in a 'sick building' is not without its psychological costs," the researchers conclude.

Most important, occupants of the building with SBS cases displayed more defensiveness, anxiety, confusion, and resentment and distrust of authority than did control workers, Bauer's group contends. This may reflect general frustration with an unexplained and protracted building problem, as well as the reactions of those with SBS to accusations that they suffer from psychological problems, the researchers note.

Employees with SBS reported substantially more cigarette smoking than their co-workers, they add. The investigators theorize that smoking may sensitize people to airborne contaminants in poorly ventilated buildings or impair immune function and thus encourage SBS symptoms. Further research must address whether nonsmokers exposed to cigarette smoke at work become more vulnerable to SBS, the investigators say.

Further studies must also evaluate psychological health when employees begin work at an allegedly "sick" building, Ryan maintains.

"Problem building usually have three to 10 major engineering flaws as well as pollutants that contribute to SBS," says physician-epidemiologist Michael J. Hodgson of the University of Connecticut School of Medicine in Farmington, who has directed several studies of contaminants in the workplace. "Psychological causes may play a minor role, but organizational dysfunction is always an issue."

For example, companies with open lines of communication usually resolve such problems quickly and thus do not come to the attention of researchers, Hodgson points out. In addition, he says, SBS complaints intensify among employees with little control over their work situation -- for instance, those who must sit all day at a computer terminal with no access to an open window.
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Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Apr 25, 1992
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