Material Matters — New LEED Specifications Target “Sick Building Syndrome”

Material Matters — New LEED Specifications Target “Sick Building Syndrome”Could your workplace be making you ill? It’s possible, and the problem even has a name: sick building syndrome (SBS). Among buildings with poor ventilation or that use out-of-date construction materials, this issue isn’t a surprise.

According to the Journal of Commerce, however, SBS has now been observed in some LEED-certified buildings, which should excel in maximizing energy management while limiting environmental impact. As a result, there’s a new LEED specification on the way, one that specifically targets building materials.

I Don’t Feel So Good…

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), SBS is “used to describe situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building.” While it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of this syndrome, employee illness is often linked to the problem of “off-gassing”, which occurs when otherwise innocuous materials begin to release high amounts of carbon dioxide or volatile organic compounds.

In many cases, the problem of off-gassing is exacerbated by poor ventilation: gases build up in closed spaces over time, eventually reaching levels that harm workers.

What’s odd is that LEED-certified components are now making the list of potentially dangerous materials. Given the program’s aim of environmental stewardship and sustainability, the risk of chemical off-gassing should be incredibly low. The problem? Even environmentally sound and locally-sourced materials can be alter ted during the manufacturing process. And with existing standards dating back to 2009, these materials are just now starting to show their age — and their risk.

Changing of the Guard

As of June 2015, LEED v.4 will replace version 3, tightening the requirements for building components by compelling manufacturers to disclose any chemicals used in production along with the processes by which these materials are created. There’s still protection for proprietary product information, but the new rules should allow LEED to make better judgments about the long-term health impacts of a facility.

LEED isn’t alone in this effort — many companies are now taking the initiative and stepping up internal cleaning of HVAC systems to limit the possibility of harmful off-gassing and SBS. And according to EurekAlert, work pioneered on the International Space Station (ISS) may soon be used to help eliminate indoor air polluting. While it’s possible to remove harmful gasses from office buildings using devices that rely on expensive trapping materials such as platinum or palladium, the ISS uses a low-cost metal mesh that has already shown promise for on-earth applications.

Your workplace may be making you sick, even if it’s LEED-certified. Thanks to new specifications, improved cleaning technologies, and a little help from outer space, sick building syndrome could soon be a thing of the past.

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