Sick Building Syndrome (Environmental Illness, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity or MCS)

  • Medical Author:
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

  • Medical Editor: John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP
    John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP

    John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP

    John P. Cunha, DO, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Cunha's educational background includes a BS in Biology from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and a DO from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in Kansas City, MO. He completed residency training in Emergency Medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey.

What causes sick building syndrome?

As stated above, there is controversy about sick building syndrome and the controversy is demonstrated by the medical literature about its cause(s). Those who believe it is a true disease syndrome have only speculated that the cause(s) are multiple and depend on the patient's medical condition (for example, asthma, COPD) and how the compounds in the building (cigarette smoke, chemical outgassing from structural components such as formaldehyde, paint odor, and radon, or biologics such as bacteria and fungi, black mold, or indoor houseplants) interact with the person. Proponents further speculate that patients with the syndrome may be more sensitive to low concentrations of some compounds and may have heightened immune response to such compounds. Further, proponents suggest depression and anxiety may play a role in this syndrome.

Others who say there is no evidence for this syndrome agree that certain chemicals, biologics, and physical agents found in some buildings can cause disease, but once these are identified (for example, lead, Legionnaires' disease, asbestos), then the disease is identified and is not a new "syndrome." The proponents of the "there is no such thing as sick building syndrome" say evidence for a new syndrome is simply nonexistent. A few individuals consider "sick building syndrome" to be a psychological problem.

What are risk factors for sick building syndrome?

Individuals who believe sick building syndrome is real consider the following as some of the major risk factors, but individual people may have only a few of these risk factors:

  • Spending time in a building (such as office workers) that causes some or many of the nonspecific symptoms listed below
  • Heightened sensitivity to environmental antigens
  • Have one or more diagnosed medical problems (for example, asthma)
  • Heightened sensitivity of smell
  • Females are more likely to develop symptoms
  • Gulf War veteran
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

However, proponents of the opposing view suggest these are general risk factors for many already-defined medical problems and offer little to clinicians who treat patients with the nonspecific symptoms (see symptoms section below) others attribute to this disease.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 9/8/2016

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