Sick Building Syndrome: Are household chemicals making you ill?

Picture: PA
Picture: PA
Share this article
Have your say

Feeling under the weather indoors? You might be suffering from Sick Building Syndrome. Kate Whiting reports

Have you heard of Sick Building Syndrome (SBS)? No, it doesn’t refer to houses that are more than a bit run down - however, it does mean your house could be making you feel run down.

The theory is that unseen chemicals found in everyday household products in our homes home could be to blame for making us feel less than great, and even making us ill.

Whenever you remove your nail varnish, clean out the oven, de-ice the car, or even sit on the sofa with a cup of decaf coffee, you’re exposing yourself to these chemicals, known as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), which are believed to cause SBS.

And according to research by The Wool Room, furniture polish and antibacterial cleaners are only getting rid of 50% of these harmful toxins.

Chris Tattersall, managing director of The Wool Room, says: “Volatile Organic Compounds have a high vapour pressure at ordinary room temperature and this means that, given optimum conditions, these harmful molecules can evaporate into the air around us, causing a number of detrimental effects on our overall health and wellbeing.”

It’s thought that spending time in certain buildings, most commonly open-plan offices, can result in a range of symptoms, including headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, eye and skin irritation - which then improve when you leave the building.

No single cause has yet been found, according to NHS Choices, but experts who’ve been researching SBS since the Seventies believe it’s a combination of things. Risk factors include poor ventilation; low humidity; changes in temperatures; airborne particles like dust, carpet fibres and fungal spores; airborne chemical pollutants from cleaning materials, furniture and printers; poor standards of cleanliness; poor lighting and stress.



Found in: insecticides and pesticides

Can cause: Nose/throat irritation, loss of coordination, liver damage

Ethylene Glycol

Found in: Oven cleaner, antifreeze, ink pen refills, fungicides

Can cause: Depression, vomiting, respiratory failure


Found in: car emissions, detergents, paint, medicine bottles, printer ink

Can cause: Headaches, rapid irregular heartbeat, unconsciousness

Methylene Chloride

Found in: Decaf coffee

Can cause: Memory loss, headaches, damage to the nervous system


Found in: Furniture, colouring pens, paint thinner, bath mats, moisturisers

Can cause: Dry cracked skin, nausea, nervous system damage


Found in: Nail polish remover, conditioners, pre-soaks, textile finishes, flea/tick treatment

Can cause: Dizziness, respiratory tract irritation, eye irritation


Found in: Glue, wrinkle-free fabric

Can cause: Burning sensation in eyes/skin, nausea, cancer


Found in: Fabric finishers

Can cause: Mood/behavioural changes, eye/throat irritation, drowsiness


The NHS recommends opening windows regularly to lower the temperature and provide all-important ventilation, having regular breaks for fresh air if you’re at work, eating healthily and exercising regularly.

The Wool Room research has also found that woollen fibres in bedding and other furnishings can absorb 80-87% of formaldehyde from the surrounding environment, so it might be worth switching to a woollen duvet.

Scottish heritage: for stories on Scotland’s people, places and history >>