Letters & Opinion

Addressing the Sick Building Epidemic

Cletus I. Springer
By Cletus I. Springer

A few months ago, at the doctor’s office, I sat next to a clearly distressed, young lady. As we waited to see our respective physicians, we got to chatting. Over the next half hour, she would share with me a litany of health woes caused by a mould problem at her workplace. She said she had spent tens of thousands of dollars on tests and treatments to address symptoms such as blotchy skin rashes, persistent head and chest colds, and voice loss. While she expected to be fully compensated – as her employer has accepted culpability – her main concern is to quickly restore her health, so she can return to doing the things she loves doing, like hiking and jogging.

Sadly, her story has become all too familiar. The mould problem has become more pervasive with every passing day, as countless businesses have endured a spate of closures for “deep cleaning.” Often, the same buildings are re-infected, indicating that deep cleaning is not working, and that the problem is not being addressed at its source. The number of buildings that are affected, often at the same time, suggests that Saint Lucia is in the throes of sick building epidemic.

Scoping the challenge

The fact that mould afflicts old and new buildings alike is indicative of its many causes and sources. However, as the US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) has acknowledged, pinpointing the causes and sources of mould is not easy, as it can grow wherever excessive moisture is present, such as leaky pipes, roofs, kitchens, bathrooms, laundries. It can also be found on paper products, cardboard, ceiling tiles, wood products, insulation, wallpaper, drywall, carpet, fabric, and upholstery. Complicating the challenge is that mould can also enter a building through open doorways, windows, vents, and heating and air conditioning systems, and by attaching itself to clothing, shoes, and even pets.

A mould-infested building can also signify its declining health, as invariably, it means moisture is weakening its structural integrity, productive use, and life expectancy. Also, it can force owners of these buildings to spend large sums of money to keep them and/or their occupants alive.  Most times, this expenditure is not budgeted for, and therefore, other things suffer. Some buildings, like the former Customs and Excise Building on Jeremie Street had to be permanently abandoned, while others, like the Hunter J. Francois Library at the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College (SALCC) have been closed for more than a decade. The College is committed to returning the building to full use. However, accomplishing this will likely cost at least EC$5 million. Still, the hope is that this remediation exercise will generate insights and lessons that can inform a national policy and strategy to arrest the sick building problem.

Contributing factors

I’ve long been of the view that poor construction standards and techniques and/or lax maintenance are major contributors to the mould problem. Although we live on an island, with low lying areas that are exposed to saline intrusion, and with an active rainy season, few buildings are “damp proofed” thus allowing moisture to rise from the ground and seep into walls. Moreover, not enough attention is given to treating indoor condensation from showering, cooking, laundering, or from extreme temperature changes. I believe this technical oversight explains why deep cleaning has not provided an effective and durable solution to the mould problem. I also believe the use of air conditioning is not properly considered in the design of buildings, leading to the presence of more sick buildings than before. Many modern buildings are fully “closed” and do not allow for natural ventilation, thus sending relative humidity levels out of whack. Moreover, air filtration systems are rarely used in these buildings. The situation has worsened with the widespread use of indoor carpeting and rugs.

While mould is the focus of this commentary, it’s worth noting that there are other contaminants that can make a building sick, most notably, volatile organic compounds (VOC), such as adhesives, copy machines, manufactured wood products, pesticides, cleaning agents. I’m always alarmed to see heavy duty photocopiers being used in enclosed spaces, where workers are present.

As far as I’m aware, mould has not caused any deaths in Saint Lucia. However, buildings afflicted with Legionnaires Disease (Morbid legionorum) can and have claimed lives in at least one OSCS country. I was at the Caribbean Environmental Health Institute (CEHI) in the early 1990s, when it was commissioned to investigate a cluster of deaths at a radio/TV station. A major finding of the study was these fatalities could have been avoided through proper and timely maintenance of air condition systems and early diagnosis and treatment of workers.

A way forward

In my nationalistic mind, I see great value in Saint Lucia and Saint Lucians taking ownership of problems and taking urgent and comprehensive steps to address them. Indeed, I see the elimination of the sick building epidemic as an exercise in which government, the business sector, trade unions, civil society organisations, churches, building professionals, the NIC, DCA, Medical and Dental Association and others ought to have a strong, vested interest. Consequently, I recommend that the Government empanel a multi-disciplinary task force to perform an in-depth assessment of the sick building challenge. Other elements of a national response to sick building epidemic that might be considered include the following:

  The DCA should promptly review its conditions of approval for fully enclosed buildings, including the use of carpets therein.

The Ministry of Health should routinely test and certify air condition systems in public buildings.

Doctors should screen patients presenting with breathing problems to establish whether there is a direct or indirect link with their workplaces and report data to the MOH.

Cleaning companies should be certified.

professional cleaning products should be evaluated for health impacts and their importation controlled by the Customs Department.

The Public Health Department should mount programmes to educate the public on measures to prevent and control mould in homes.

The same company that conducts a deep cleaning exercise should not be used to verify the indoor air quality of a building after cleaning is done.

These measures may already have been adopted but I thought I should mention them as they’re among the more obvious steps we can take to stop the spread of a sick building epidemic in Saint Lucia in its tracks.

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