Sick Building Syndrome Needs Airing
In the mid-1970s, Americans learned about fuel conservation the hard way when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries embargoed oil shipments to the West. Suddenly, putting gasoline in the car became a hassle, the President began wearing a cardigan in the White House and thermostats around the country were lowered to 68 degrees.
Something else happened in the wake of the oil embargo - something that seemed like a good idea at the time. Architects, designers and developers began sealing commercial buildings "tight" to cut down on energy costs. In older offices, windows that once slid open easily were now sealed shut. In the newer buildings, windows were designed never to open in the first place. The air inside the buildings was now supplied through indoor heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems - HVACs.
There always have been questions about the safety of these enclosed environments. In 1976 the air-conditioning system of a Philadelphia hotel rained bacteria on the building's occupants, causing a flu-like epidemic that soon was dubbed Legionnaire's Disease. And today, says Robert Axelrad, chief of the Environmental Protection Agency's indoor air staff in Washington, poor indoor air quality "is responsible for tens of billions of dollars in lost productivity and direct medical costs." The levels of pollutants inside buildings, he says, "are often as much as 100 times higher than outdoor levels."
As public awareness of the hazards posed by tight, improperly designed and maintained buildings increases, experts are anticipating a rise in the number of liability cases against building owners and professional liability cases against builders.
Tom Nova, a licensed New York State insurance broker who focuses on coverage for hazardous material contractors, asserts that, "In schools, hospitals, offices and other closed environments, the question …