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11 ways to green school

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Sick Building Syndrome and Legionnaires' Disease

Sick Building
Courtesy of John Andrews
Sick Building Syndrome is the name for a building condition that can literally make people sick. The problem is usually with indoor air quality, where impurities can bring on asthma attacks or allergies. Mold is a frequent culprit, as well.

In rare instances, sick buildings can be deadly. Perhaps the best example is the outbreak of a previously unknown bacteria that caused an epidemic of pneumonia at a convention at a hotel in Philadelphia in 1976. Over 200 people became ill, and 34 died. Several similar episodes have since occurred worldwide, with similar results.

The disease was found to be caused by bacteria that grow in pools of warm water that can be found in certain types of large air-conditioning systems. Besides introducing the hazard, the building’s ventilation system effectively spread it everywhere. Regulations have changed, with more stringent cleaning and hygiene requirements for large scale air-conditioning systems.

This is an extreme case, but illustrates how buildings can sometimes fail in their primary objective of keeping people safe and comfortable. Fortunately, the consequences are rarely so spectacular and deadly.

Legionnaires’ disease takes its name from the Philadelphia outbreak, which occurred at a convention of the American Legion. The members were typically older men, who were more susceptible to infection, which increased the severity of the toll.


Indoor Air Pollutants