Sick building syndrome (SBS) and exposure to water-damaged buildings: time series study, clinical trial and mechanisms

Neurotoxicol Teratol. 2006 Sep-Oct;28(5):573-88. doi: 10.1016/ Epub 2006 Aug 7.


Occupants of water-damaged buildings (WDBs) with evidence of microbial amplification often describe a syndrome involving multiple organ systems, commonly referred to as "sick building syndrome" (SBS), following chronic exposure to the indoor air. Studies have demonstrated that the indoor air of WDBs often contains a complex mixture of fungi, mycotoxins, bacteria, endotoxins, antigens, lipopolysaccharides, and biologically produced volatile compounds. A case-series study with medical assessments at five time points was conducted to characterize the syndrome after a double-blinded, placebo-controlled clinical trial conducted among a group of study participants investigated the efficacy of cholestyramine (CSM) therapy. The general hypothesis of the time series study was that chronic exposure to the indoor air of WDBs is associated with SBS. Consecutive clinical patients were screened for diagnosis of SBS using criteria of exposure potential, symptoms involving at least five organ systems, and the absence of confounding factors. Twenty-eight cases signed voluntary consent forms for participation in the time-series study and provided samples of microbial contaminants from water-damaged areas in the buildings they occupied. Twenty-six participants with a group-mean duration of illness of 11 months completed examinations at all five study time points. Thirteen of those participants also agreed to complete a double-blinded, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Data from Time Point 1 indicated a group-mean of 23 out of 37 symptoms evaluated; and visual contrast sensitivity (VCS), an indicator of neurological function, was abnormally low in all participants. Measurements of matrix metalloproteinase 9 (MMP9), leptin, alpha melanocyte stimulating hormone (MSH), vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), immunoglobulin E (IgE), and pulmonary function were abnormal in 22, 13, 25, 14, 1, and 7 participants, respectively. Following 2 weeks of CSM therapy to enhance toxin elimination rates, measurements at Time Point 2 indicated group-means of 4 symptoms with 65% improvement in VCS at mid-spatial frequency-both statistically significant improvements relative to Time Point 1. Moderate improvements were seen in MMP9, leptin, and VEGF serum levels. The improvements in health status were maintained at Time Point 3 following a 2-week period during which CSM therapy was suspended and the participants avoid re-exposure to the WDBs. Participants reoccupied the respective WDBs for 3 days without CSM therapy, and all participants reported relapse at Time Point 4. The group-mean number of symptoms increased from 4 at Time Point 2 to 15 and VCS at mid-spatial frequency declined by 42%, both statistically significant differences relative to Time Point 2. Statistically significant differences in the group-mean levels of MMP9 and leptin relative to Time Point 2 were also observed. CSM therapy was reinstated for 2 weeks prior to assessments at Time Point 5. Measurements at Time Point 5 indicated group-means of 3 symptoms and a 69% increase in VCS, both results statistically different from those at Time Points 1 and 4. Optically corrected Snellen Distance Equivalent visual acuity scores did not vary significantly over the course of the study. Group-mean levels of MMP9 and leptin showed statistically significant improvement at Time Point 5 relative to Time Points 1 and 4, and the proportion of participants with abnormal VEGF levels was significantly lower at Time Point 5 than at Time Point 1. The number of participants at Time Point 5 with abnormal levels of MMP9, leptin, VEGF, and pulmonary function were 10, 10, 9, and 7, respectively. The level of IgE was not re-measured because of the low incidence of abnormality at Time Point 1, and MSH was not re-measured because previously published data indicated a long time course for MSH improvement. The results from the time series study supported the general study hypothesis that exposure to the indoor air of WDBs is associated with SBS. High levels of MMP9 indicated that exposure to the complex mixture of substances in the indoor air of the WDBs triggered a pro-inflammatory cytokine response. A model describing modes of action along a pathway leading to biotoxin-associated illness is presented to organize current knowledge into testable hypotheses. The model links an inflammatory response with tissue hypoxia, as indicated by abnormal levels of VEGF, and disruption of the proopiomelanocortin pathway in the hypothalamus, as evidenced by abnormalities in leptin and MSH levels. Results from the clinical trial on CSM efficacy indicated highly significant improvement in group-mean number of symptoms and VCS scores relative to baseline in the 7 participants randomly assigned to receive 2 weeks of CSM therapy, but no improvement in the 6 participants assigned placebo therapy during that time interval. However, those 6 participants also showed a highly significant improvement in group-mean number of symptoms and VCS scores relative to baseline following a subsequent 2-week period of CSM therapy. Because the only known benefit of CSM therapy is to enhance the elimination rates of substances that accumulate in bile by preventing re-absorption during enterohepatic re-circulation, results from the clinical trial also supported the general study hypothesis that SBS is associated with exposure to WDBs because the only relevant function of CSM is to bind and remove toxigenic compounds. Only research that focuses on the signs, symptoms, and biochemical markers of patients with persistent illness following acute and/or chronic exposure to WDBs can further the development of the model describing modes of action in the biotoxin-associated pathway and guide the development of innovative and efficacious therapeutic interventions.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Comparative Study
  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Anticholesteremic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Cholestyramine Resin / therapeutic use*
  • Contrast Sensitivity / physiology
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Immunoglobulin E / blood
  • Leptin / blood
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Matrix Metalloproteinase 9 / blood
  • Melanocyte-Stimulating Hormones / blood
  • Middle Aged
  • Multivariate Analysis
  • Sick Building Syndrome / blood
  • Sick Building Syndrome / drug therapy*
  • Sick Building Syndrome / etiology
  • Sick Building Syndrome / physiopathology
  • Time Factors
  • Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor A / blood
  • Water Pollution / adverse effects*


  • Anticholesteremic Agents
  • Leptin
  • Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor A
  • Cholestyramine Resin
  • Immunoglobulin E
  • Melanocyte-Stimulating Hormones
  • Matrix Metalloproteinase 9