Caution: Working in modern office buildings may be hazardous to your health.
There is little knowledge, less research and increasing suspicion that the environment in which 25 percent of all American working people spend more time than in their living rooms is responsible for hypertension, depression, pulmonary diseases, alcoholism and other ills.
A few days ago, industrial safety and health experts had to be flown to Washington to investigate the complaints of 43 government electricans who maintain and repair electric transformers. They suffer skin rashes, headaches and fatigue, most likely due to their contact with PCB, or polychlorinated biphenyl.
PCB is known to cause cancer in animals and attacks the immunization system of humans. Its use was outlawed in 1976, but it is still used to cool transformers in many government buildings here, including the White House. And it often leaks.
In San Francisco, the tar on the roof of a recently completed office tower gives off toxic chemicals in hot weather. The heating, ventilating and air conditioning system sucks in these fumes and very scientifically circulates them through the building. People who work inside are in a mild stupor by the middle of the day.
Also in San Francisco, workers in a glass-box government office complain about headaches and sinus trouble. Four employes were transferred on advice of their doctors.
The trouble, it seems, is that air circulation is so poor that by afternoon, most occupants of this building can no longer concentrate and some actually get sick. But so far, no one is doing anything about it, because bringing in more fresh air would increase energy cost. Besides, the precise cause of the decreased productivity and increased incidence of illness is not definitely proven.
"Air refresheners, solvents, adhesives in building products, cleaning fluids, fire-retardant chemicals, chemicals to prevent aging of paints and finishes -- all these may be turning the insides of sealed buildings into virtual gas chambers," writes George Rand, a psychologist who teaches environmental design, in the October 1979 issue of the Journal of the American Institute of Architects.
"Add to the problem seemingly incocuous office furniture, carpets and curtains which may contain formaldehyde, asbestos and other harmful substances. Coying machines can produce ozone which results in headaches and upper respiratory infections," says the AIA Journal.
We used to be able to open windows and doors and get fresh air. In modern offices the "fresh" air is processed -- heated or cooled -- to minimize the need for ventilation, which runs up the electric bill. More often than not, however, the processed air is fouled by more and more chemical agents, according to Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories research cited in the Journal article.
The article also says that ventilation standards recommended by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers, and adopted by many states and local governments, are based on outdated research conducted long before such potentially toxic materials as formaldehyde and nitrogen dioxide were used in building and furnishing.
Another poorly understood area is airborne infection. It may well be that modern energy-saving heating and air conditioning systems nurture and transmit bacterial infections, as the outbreak of "legionnaire's disease" suggested. Some insulating materials are made from newsprint that contains starches -- a favorite breeding place for hazardous fungi.
There is also growing evidence that bands of fluorescent lights can lead to mental and physical stress. Controlled tests have shown that ordinary fluorescent lamps lead to hyperactivity in children.Plants grown under fluorescent light produce strange mutagenic reactions.
More importantly, it seems that humans have a special need for lighting to absorb chemicals and maintain healthy body functions. Kate Bernier, a biologist specializing in these matters, says people need a daily diet of full-spectrum light -- a variety of light intensity and light sources -- not only to keep awake and alert, but also to keep the pituitary glands functioning properly. Light may be as potent as chemicals in the human biology.
Half of all American office workers now use automated data processing of some kind. More than one-quarter use computers. Electronic hardware is spreading as fast as mass-produced automobiles and television sets proliferated earlier in this century. Yet we know little about the physiological, neurological and behavioral effects of low-intensity electronmagnetic radiation on people exposed to it over long periods. The AIA Journal says that, oddly enough, the Soviets have done more research on this subject than Americans have.
What we do know is that there are clear and present potentials for ill effects, such as cataracts and other forms of eye damage, emotional instability, partial loss of memory, diminished intellectual capacity, loss of appetite, loss of hair, cardiovascular dysfunction, thyroid hypertrophy, sterility, impaired white-blood-cell formation, heart seizure, leukemia and genetic abnormalities.
The question is only how imminent these hazardous potentials are.
At best, the effect of toxic materials is now being tested on the "average" person. This is fine, except that medically there is no such thing as "average." People react differently to different materials and different doses of poison.
Nor is anyone really alarmed because, so far at least, the hazards of the modern office environment are subtle. Nobody has yet died from spending hours in front of a video screen and breathing bad air.
A few architects and engineers might suspect that increasing yawns and decreasing productivity may be due to lack of oxygen brought on by plasticizers, fire retardants and maintenance fluids. Office managers, and the victims themselves, are likely to blame big lunches, boredom and Valium.
There is little research, and insufficient data. White collar workers, even those who suffer severe headaches or spells of nausea, are afraid to speak up for fear of being considered lazy or hypochondriacs or malcontents. They thus join the majority of Americans who, sheep-like, suffer Muzak and other noise pollution, or simply submit to malfunctioning gadgets like Farecard machines, rude sales and service people and uncivil servants rather than seeming to be "square," eccentric and -- that horror of horrors in American society -- maladjusted.
The trouble is compounded because reporting the vague symptions of the new environmental diseases does little good. The symptoms are likely to be quickly labelled as "psychosomatic."
The indoor pollution may be about to kill you, but chances are your friends or even doctor will send you to a psychiatrist of one kind or another. The shrink will then tell you that you subconsciously hate your job, your spouse or your mother. If you don't believe it, you are "defensive" or "repressive" or hostile to your therapist. The cure: Valium and group therapy sessions.
This cure, like bloodletting a century ago, is slowly becoming less fashionable. Some professional, at the risk of incurring all the cures of Freud, even dare to expose most psychotherapy as unscientific.
Before long, real science must attack the hazards of controlled environments. As Rand says in the AIA Journal, "it is only a matter of time before we recognize the connection between electronic offices and the process of desensitization that has gripped our culture in this century. By the time we recultivate sensuous concerns -- joy in the sights, sounds and odors of nature -- we may find that a large portion of our culture has lost these sensibilities."
This is another strong argument to recognize the failure of modern architecture and send its designers back to the drawing board.