SBS Causes Headache for New-Build Occupants

21st October 2022

Geoenvironmental • Specialist Services

Ground & Water was consulted to help solve a “smelly” Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) mystery that was causing a real headache for some new-build occupants.

Our Client

Our clients had recently moved into a new residential property that had been constructed by a reputable developer. However the occupants were experiencing an intermittent odour nuisance in the kitchen, which did not seem to coincide with any specific weather, air pressure or kitchen use patterns.


Based on a site visit, a phased investigation scheme was adopted. Firstly, a Photo-ionisation Detector (PID) survey, used to detect Volatile Organic Compounds, was undertaken. This identified slightly elevated PID readings generally within the property, but increased in the kitchen, especially under cupboards, where the flooring finished and only screed/concrete was present. Gas Box analysis did not indicate any abnormal bulk gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, hydrogen sulphide or carbon monoxide.


Our Challenge

The issue was put down to SBS and Ground & Water was tasked with identifying and determining the source of the nauseous odour within the kitchen of the new home.

Research conducted by the Health & Safety Executive in 1992, that looked at the causes and solutions surrounding Sick Building Syndrome, estimated the cost to the British economy ran into £millions thanks to illness, absenteeism, lost productivity and performance.

SBS is a phenomenon whereby people experience a range of clinical symptoms when in certain buildings. Buildings can be commercial or residential, although SBS is most prevalent in office buildings. Symptoms can include eye irritation, nauseous odours, blocked or runny nose, sore throat, skin irritation, headache and lethargy. They seem to disappear within hours or days after leaving the building. A report by the World Health Organisation determined that as much as 30 percent of new and re-modelled buildings around the world cause SBS symptoms.

The Ground & Water Approach

The key to this investigation was to keep costs to a manageable level for the homeowner, but also provide the necessary certainty over the source of the odour and provide remedial recommendations. Ground & Water decided to undertake further analysis via Gas Canisters. The initial testing was inconclusive with compounds common to a new home present, but with some mixed isomers showing high concentrations, but the lab was unable to separate them.

Further analysis was undertaken using a Protometer and Hygrometer to check moisture levels in the screed/concrete. This indicated that parts of the screed laid still had excess moisture at levels which dry screed should not have.

On a particularly “smelly” occasion further Gas Canister analysis was undertaken. The lab was able to breakdown further chemical signatures, revealing a compound called 2-Ethyl-1-Hexanol in the air and concentrations over the odour threshold. In addition, the descriptor of the anticipated smell wasn’t too far off “heavy, earthy and slightly floral”.

Research into the compound revealed that 2-Ethyl-1-Hexanol is a plasticiser commonly found to be responsible for SBS. Its mechanism for release comprised compounds having 2-ethylhexyl groups contained in the floor materials and adhesives being hydrolysed by the alkaline moisture content of the concrete.


The Outcome

Following a tenacious site investigation, the evidence gathered by the Ground & Water team and the lab, allowed the new build occupants to discuss the issue and proposed solution with the builder and allow remediation to take place.

Happy new building owners and hopefully happy builders too; as a long running issue has been solved and lessons were learnt to avoid the problem in the future.

If you suspect something physical is causing a SBS headache in your home or office, contact Ground and Water to help identify it.

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