Your Workplace Could be Making You Sick

If you have itchy eyes, a runny nose or a cough that won’t go away, you might not have a cold - where you work or live could also be making you sick. Some doctors and patients are calling it a silent epidemic.

"It's invisible, you can’t see it, touch it, smell it or taste it," said Alan Bell.

Bell’s a former Broward County prosecutor. He’s used to getting to the bottom of crime cases but he had a difficult time solving his own medical mystery. It took him months to find out the cause of his illness.

"I started going to the doctors and they said, 'Well, it will get better' and it didn’t, it got worse," he said.

Months later, Bell said he discovered the new building he was working in at the time in Broward County was making him sick.

Sick Building Syndrome

"The new carpeting, the new glue, the new paints, the new ingredients were circulating around in the air," he said.

The new products can form what’s called Volatile Organic Compounds or VOCs. They’re gases that are emitted into the air. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says they can have short and long term health effects.

"What I discovered is that I wasn’t alone," said Bell.

The EPA has a name for it – Sick Building Syndrome. It estimates three in ten new or remodeled buildings may have excessive complaints about indoor air quality. Complaints range from chest tightness to muscle aches. They say many of the problems arise from not having enough indoor ventilation.

There is help, but it can be difficult to find. If you believe you work in building that could be making you sick, you can make an online request with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to have it investigated. However, the NBC 6 Investigators found that rarely happens. Thirteen work places have been investigated in the past decade in Florida. When NIOSH does investigate, the results can take years to get back. The NBC 6 Investigators reached out to every local, state and national health and employment agency and all of them said they don’t keep statistics on the specific number of people who claim to have Sick Building Syndrome.

New Device Could Help Detect Problems

Using a federal grant, University of Miami Professor Naresh Kumar says he has developed a solution to help detect if you work in a building that could be making you ill. Dr. Kumar helped created an electronic monitor that can measure in real time the levels of VOCs in the air. The device alerts someone when harmful levels are detected.

"A brand new building can be a living hell," said Professor Kumar.  "An extremely high amount of VOCs can cause many, many disorders."

He’s working to get the cost down so the devices can be used just like carbon monoxide detectors.

As for Bell, after he found the cause of his illness, he became an environmental advocate and devoted his life to helping others avoid what happened to him.

"Nobody is immune from this," said Bell. "It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor or black or white or Jewish or Muslim, it doesn’t matter we are all equally at risk."

In addition to VOCs being an issue for many new or remodeled buildings, Professor Kumar believes there’s something inside almost everyone’s home in South Florida that could also be making them sick. Tune into NBC 6 News at 11 p.m. Monday for that story.

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