Ignoring health complaints of building occupants can prove to be expensive. The money that [a major east coast university] saved annually by reducing the amount of fresh air introduced into the buildings [to save energy] was possibly exceeded by the cost of lost work time, hospitalizations, and legal and consulting fees resulting from the university's IAQ problems. It is difficult to attach a dollar figure to the harm done to a school's reputation and to the relationships among its constituents, but this damage too represents a loss.
One indoor air quality professional estimates that the annual cost of an employee is about one hundred times greater than the energy cost to keep a building heated, cooled, and ventilated for that one person. If an employer saves an energy cost of $1 a day by reducing the ventilation in a building, and an employee who is paid $100 a day misses a day of work because of illness, the employer's net loss is $99 (the salary is paid to the employee even if he or she is out sick).
In the mid-1990s, William J. Fisk of the Indoor Environmental Department at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California estimated that the financial benefits of improving indoor air quality included a "potential annual savings and productivity gains in 1996 dollars of $6 to $14 billion from reduced respiratory disease; $2 to $4 billion from reduced allergies and asthma; $15 to $40 billion from reduced symptoms of sick building syndrome; and $20 to $200 billion from direct improvements in worker performance that are unrelated to health. In two calculations, the potential financial benefits of improving indoor environments exceed costs by factors of 9 and 14." The dollar amounts of these savings would be even greater today.
Ironically, we started to build "tight buildings" in the 1970s because people became interested in protecting the Earth's resources. Yet in preserving fuel, we sometimes place a higher value on the conservation of energy sources than on the preservation of human health.
Adapted by permission of Jeff May from his book, My Office is Killing Me.