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A family member of mine works in a call center, and has been experiencing several symptoms whenever at work:

  • headache
  • slightly, yet measurably elevated body temperature (~37,2 °C)
  • rashes in the forearms, neck
  • burning/stingy sensation in lungs and eyes
  • runny eyes
  • swollen and sore lymph nodes in the neck
  • congestion and itching in nostrils
  • fatigue, with "brain fog and dizziness"
  • pain in the joints

The list may be nonexhaustive, but these are the most prominent ones. The symptoms vary in severity, causing rather discomfort than cause for acute concern. She is not the only one experiencing these symptoms; in fact several employees have been moved to other locations due to similar symptoms while in this particular building, and even statistically there has been a minor increase in outbreaks of asthma among the employees.

Samples have been taken from the air and the linoleum floor, and those have not shown any signs of bacteria, fungi or other volatile organic compounds including 2-ethylhexanol. Yet the symptoms continue, and the only possible explanations offered so far have been insufficient ventilation and psychosomatic causes. I found these explanations lacking however, since so far I haven't found evidence to suggest they could cause rashes that have been appearing symmetrically on the forearms. Also some (but not all) employees transferred to other locations stop experiencing symptoms.

The symmetric appearance of the rashes could be an indication that the cause could, for example, be a cleaning agent used on the tables, but then again people working for the same employer in an adjacent building don't suffer from the same symptoms. I have no knowledge of whether the rashes are identical among all symptomatic employees or not. The buildings are not identical in layout, ventilation, or otherwise, but are cleaned by the same company.

In my opinion the circumstances point to an airborne agent that is yet to be identified, however as I mentioned, the tests done so far have come back negative. I'm looking for ideas on what could be the cause of such symptoms.

Some more points to take into consideration:

  • The buildings are made of reinforced concrete and have active ventilation.
  • The building in which the symptoms appear has 3 stories and a basement. The actual office is in the second floor.
  • There have been at least two occasions where water has seeped through the roof of the second floor office to the extent that the concrete has been visibly wet. I'm not 100% on what was the ultimate cause, but to my understanding it was not a faulty pipe, but rather extreme weather conditions.
  • Mold has been found in the basement, but the employer claims the basement is not in the same ventilation system. The basement is being renovated, and workers do not pass between the second floor and the basement.

Workplace safety administration has been notified of the problems, and they ordered samples to be taken. As I mentioned above, the tested samples didn't show anything remarkable. At this point the employer also transferred all symptomatic employees to the adjacent building, which combined with the test results satisfied the officials and the case was closed. The employer has since started refusing transfer requests, and also actively refused when the employees suggested that they could hire a detection dog trained for mold at their own expense.

Unfortunately there are no other gov't departments that could be involved in the matter in any sensible amount of time unless there is something concrete (no pun intended) to show that the previous tests were not enough (or that there is some foul play involved).

To sum things up, I'm not an expert on the subject, and was hoping to get some suggestions on what could cause the described symptoms. Having concrete suggestions would greatly help getting investigations started again.

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Framing the symptoms as mold-like biases thinking through the scenario. Contact dermatitis would account for multiple individuals experiencing rash with similar appearance and distributions. The fact that people work in an adjacent building for the same employer imply they use the same cleaning service, same chemicals and identical ventilation. Is this certain? I disagree organic ( carbon-based?) agents have been ruled out, but respiratory complaints that resolve with a change in environment does suggest an airborne component; if fevers ( and not mistaking feeling warm, sweaty, shaky as signs of fever) are actually part of the picture, then I suggest reporting these cases to local public health department. They would be on the best position to look at epidemiology of the cases, which may extend beyond this employer and building. Alternatively, there may be a history of similar cases in this building, which would also be helpful to identify.
Follow up appreciated.

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  • Thank you very much for your pointers. I've edited in more details, and changed the title to not cause a bias. I'd greatly appreciate it if you have further suggestions, either for the cause or for further improvements to the question.
    – Schlaus
    Jun 1 '15 at 14:53

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