Matheos Viktor Messakh , THE JAKARTA POST , JAKARTA | Wed, 03/04/2009 9:58 AM | Health
After all those years of complaining that work makes you sick, it turns out you could be right. Don’t get too comfortable thinking your workplace is an airtight building, fully equipped with air conditioner, thick, regularly cleaned carpet and photocopier and fax. Things are not always what they seem.
A recent study by the University of Indonesia’s Mass Health Faculty, the Indonesian Mass Health Expert Association (IAKMI) and PT Bayer Indonesia revealed that 50 percent of people who work in office buildings in Jakarta suffer from what is known as “Sick Building Syndrome”.
Joko Prayitno Sutanto, a researcher with a government research agency, working out of a high-rise building in the Thamrin area, said he found he got a sore throat and cough every time he entered the building.
The 49-year-old researcher – who spent up to eight hours a day at his office – said he was not sure of the cause of the headache and cough, but felt uncomfortable with the air conditioner in the building.
“Apparently the air conditioner only runs from 8 a.m. so every time we enter the glass-walled building we already feel airless,” he said.
Joko is not the only one who finds it all too easy to believe there is a connection between the workplace and the state of his health.
Dian, 46, who works in the human resources department at a private company in a building in the Sudirman area, said she tended to feel nauseous and to tire easily, and she often had watering eyes and runny nose.
“It happens almost everyday and when I get home I feel like I can do nothing at all,” said Dian, who puts in more than eight hours a day at the office. “It’s not too bad but it’s annoying because it happens almost everyday.”
She also noticed that she felt better away from work. “It’s not drastically better but I feel it when I get out of the building.”
Joko and Dian are two of 350 employees from 18 companies and government institutions that took part in a three-month study conducted by the University of Indonesia from September to December 2008.
The 350 respondents were separated into two groups; members of one group were given antioxidant supplements while the members of the other group were not.
The study discovered that 50 percent of people who work in office buildings suffer from “Sick Building Syndrome”, and that members of the group that took the antioxidants experienced a significant reduction in their illness than the group with no intervention.
Taking antioxidants reduced the frequency of occurrence of four main symptoms of “Sick Building Syndrome” by up to 50 percent. Headaches were reduced by 48.9 percent, burning eyes were reduced by 45.5 percent, runny nose by 51.9 percent, bronchitis by 27.2 percent and exhaustion after normal activity by 40.8 percent.
“The risk of having Sick Building Syndrome is closely related to environmental factors which become the medium for physical, chemical and biological pollutants and radiation, especially when we face relatively constant exposure,” said research coordinator Budi Haryanto.
Haryanto said that Sick Building Syndrome became widely known in Hong Kong and Singapore in the 1990s through research.
“Now they have become very advanced in managing the indoor air quality, but we have never before conducted this kind of study on indoor air quality,” he said.
A disease known is half cured, but the Manpower and Transmigration Ministry, which is responsible for evaluating indoor air quality, never tested it, said Haryanto.
“Sorry to say but the Health Ministry, which is responsible for monitoring the impact of indoor air pollution, also never did any monitoring,” said Haryanto.
For years, Jakarta has been included in the World Health Organization list of the world’s most polluted cities. World Bank data from 2004 ranked Jakarta as the third most polluted city in the world. A study by the University of Indonesia, USAID and Swisscontact revealed that city transportation contributed 70 percent of the total pollution in the city.
“If we look at the annual Health Profile of the Health Ministry, the top 10 diseases are related to air pollution and the total of these diseases accounted for 50 percent of diseases reported by the ministry,” said Haryanto, who is also chairman of the Environmental Health Department at the University of Indonesia’s School of Public Health.
However, said Haryanto, not many know that research has frequently found that the level of air pollution indoors could be worse than the level outdoors.
If building occupants complain of symptoms associated with acute discomfort, such as headaches; eye, nose or throat irritation; dry cough; dry or itchy skin; dizziness and nausea; difficulty in concentrating; fatigue; and sensitivity to odors – these might be symptoms of the syndrome.
Especially if the cause of the symptoms is not known and most of the complainants report relief soon after leaving the building, it is likely that they are in a “sick” building.
Causes of Sick Building Syndrome, said Haryanto, are inadequate ventilation, chemical contaminants from indoor sources, chemical contaminants from outdoor sources and biological contaminants.
Inadequate ventilation, which may also occur if heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems do not effectively distribute air to people in the building, is thought to be another important factor in Sick Building Syndrome.
Most indoor air pollution comes from sources inside the building, such as adhesives, carpeting, upholstery, manufactured wood products, photocopiers, air conditioners, pesticides and cleaning agents.
Environmental tobacco smoke also contributes high levels of toxins and particulate matter.
“Most of us spend more than eight hours a day in our office dealing with the copy machine, printer, air conditioner and carpet everyday,” Haryanto said. “Because we cannot smell the particles and dust we drag in everyday, we feel safe, but actually they cause lots of respiration problems.”
The outdoor air that enters a building can be a source of indoor air pollution, as pollutants can enter the building through poorly located air vents, windows and other openings.
Biological contaminants such as bacteria, mold, pollen and viruses can also be making buildings – and their occupants – sick. These can breed in any stagnant water that has collected in ducts or drains, or other places. Other sources of biological contaminants include insects or bird droppings – which can result in cough, chest tightness, fever, chills, muscle aches and allergic responses.
These elements, said Haryanto, may act in combination and may supplement other complaints such as inadequate temperature, humidity or lighting. Even after a building is investigated, the specific causes of the complaints may remain unknown.
Until the lack of knowledge about the syndrome among both the public and building developers and related government agencies is reversed, the first step for individuals is to reduce the impact of indoor air pollution by maintaining a healthy life – such as through antioxidant supplements, as found in the study.
“The need for vitamins and antioxidant supplements is parallel and important to people living in the middle of pollution,” Haryanto said. “Especially vitamin C and E are needed for stamina.”
At the moment, this may be workers’ only option. As Haryanto points out, “The key word for this syndrome is respiration. We can’t choose to breathe or not to breathe, can we?”
Sick Building Syndrome
Burning and watering eyes and nose
Burning in trachea
Debilitating fibromyalgia (muscle cramps and joint pain)
Dry, itchy skin
Exhaustion after normal activity
Hoarseness, cough, sore throat
Inability to concentrate
Itchy granulomous pimples
Sensitivity to odors
Serious edema (swelling of legs, trunk, ankles)
Shortness of breath upon mild exertion (e.g. walking)
Wellness when away from building