Can My Apartment or Building Make Me Sick?

So you’ve moved in to the perfect, new apartment that it took you ages to find when you suddenly find a strange, dark patch on your bathroom floor. That’s when you realize the apartment that was completely flawless actually came with a flaw: Mold. So instead of having the perfect apartment, you now have an apartment that could potentially make you sick. In fact, there are several things from your apartment that could potentially be harmful. Which leads us to ask: Could your apartment make you sick?

When it comes to getting sick from your apartment, there are two main terms to discuss:

  • Sick Building Syndrome (SBS): Temporary syndromes that can occur when you’re in the apartment, but disappear once you leave. Those who experience sick building syndrome can suffer from itchy eyes, skin rashes, nasal allergy, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, aches, and sensitivity to odors. The symptoms can recur seasonally due to heating and cooling occurring in the apartment and the apartment building.
  • Building-Related Illness (BRI): Illnesses that occur as a result of a variety of factors from your apartment and building complex. The factors may not be apparent and illnesses that develop as a result of BRI can take up to years to occur though there can also be acute or immediate health problems that occur as a result of BRI.

As mentioned, unfortunately, the cause of symptoms in cases of sick building syndrome and building-related illness can be hard to pin down due to the fact that range of factors can contribute to the problem. While a lot of the times, the cause can be bad ventilation due to poor building design and maintenance, here are some of the other things that potentially could be a risk for your health:

  • Lead Paint: If your home was built prior to 1978, there is a good chance that it could contain lead-based paint. Lead from paint, is one of the leading causes of lead poisoning and is especially dangerous for younger children. If you suspect your child is at risk for lead exposure, you should talk to your physician about having your child’s blood tested as soon as possible for lead levels. While lead poisoning can also occur due to other sources such as water, toys, etc, you should be especially careful to reduce the chances of lead poisoning by maintaining your home’s condition. Getting your home tested by a lead professional can tell you where you must be especially careful.  
  • Pollution: Polluted air from the city can easily find its way into your apartment. It’s important to make sure your apartment has good ventilation to ensure that pollutants that find their way into your apartment can be removed.
  • Mites: Although generally harmless, there are a few types of mites that are associated with causing cases of skin dermatitis or worse spreading dangerous diseases to humans. Some mites, such as dust mites can even trigger asthma attacks. If you believe you have mites, please call your local exterminator.
  • Tobacco smoke: Long exposure to tobacco smoke can increase your risk for lung cancer. While you might not smoke personally, it’s easy to allow smoke from the outdoors into your apartment. Similar to pollution sources from outdoors, it is important to maintain well ventilation in your apartment.
  • Radon: This is an invisible gas that can increase your risk of lung cancer, especially for smokers. You can test for radon by purchasing a test kit.
  • Asbestos: This was a common building and insulation material used from 1920 to 1978. While exposure to small amounts won’t hurt you, unfortunately, breathing in high levels of it can increase your chance of cancer and lung disease. If you know your home has traces of asbestos, it is best to hire a trained contractor to remove it.
  • Combustion Gases: There three main types of combustion gases are Carbon Monoxide, Nitrogen Oxides, and Sulfur Dioxide. Each of these gases can cause flu-like symptoms, respiratory illnesses, and even death. Never use unventilated combustion appliances such as portable kerosene heaters indoors and always use an exhaust hood over a gas stove (and make sure to turn it on while cooking!). If you have a chimney, also remember to clean and maintain it on a yearly basis. Outside of these precautionary actions, you should also make sure that you install a carbon monoxide monitor.
  • Water Pollution: Though America is known for having one of the best water supplies in the world, there can be pollutants such as nitrates, bacteria, pesticides, organic chemicals, and/or radon that found its way into the water source. If you have reason to believe something is wrong with the water, you can easily buy a drinking water test kit to test the water.
  • Mold & Allergens: Water-damaged materials are the perfect sources for mold and other organisms to grow. Such organisms can cause allergies and other illnesses. To reduce this from happening, make sure to fix leaks and moisture problems immediately. You should also make sure to wrap your mattresses and pillows in allergy proof covers and also make sure that the ventilation in your house is good. If you’re considering the use of a humidifier, make sure that you follow the manufacturer’s instructions as well!  

As you can see, there are many different things that can cause SBS and/or BRI. This is why, there may need to be an extensive investigation that requires the involvement of the people affected, the building owner/manager, a building investigation specialist, local medical authority epidemiologists, and public health officials just to track down the singular cause of an issue. If you have reason to suspect that you are suffering from SBS and/or BRI, it’s important to log and track when your symptoms occur and where they occur to make it easier to figure out the cause.