Are you allergic to your office?

Allergy UK asks how many people may be allergic to the moulds and mites in their poorly ventilated offices; FoodsMatter asks how  many of them may also be affected by the electrosmog in those offices and in the surrounding environment?

This is an edited version of the Allergy UK press release that hit our desks ten days ago:

The summer holiday season is officially over and the nation is knuckling down to work. But Allergy UK estimates that at least 5.7 million people could be allergic to their workplace.

The charity carried out research amongst office workers, primarily allergy sufferers, to establish how commonplace 'work fever' is. They asked about nasal problems, eye conditions, dry throats, breathing difficulties, lethargy, headaches and skin irritations; 95% of those questioned had experienced one or more of these symptoms in the office. But over a quarter (27%) said their symptoms were worsened by their office environment.

Worryingly, 62% of respondents had experienced itchy or watery eyes, and 27% breathing difficulties over the last year in their office and, alarmingly, over half of the group surveyed had experienced an allergic reaction whilst at work.

Maureen Jenkins, Director of Clinical Services, Allergy UK says: "The results are of concern for Allergy UK because it is difficult for individuals to exercise the same control over their workplace as they would do at home. Management of allergies becomes increasingly difficult when in communal spaces, so it's not surprising that a great deal of allergy sufferers have experienced a reaction at work."

Office Hot Spots

According to Allergy UK there are numerous 'hotspots' around the office that can have huge implications for allergy sufferers:

• Lack of ventilation: the majority of those with prevalent symptoms at work do not consider their office to be well ventilated. Of the overall sample, only 15% said their office was well ventilated.
• Carpets: 90% of office workers surveyed reported their workplace has carpeted floors, but carpets and soft furnishings can harbour house dust mite allergen.
• Bookcases: 54% said they had open bookshelves, which when you remove books or items from the shelves, could disturb any dust that has collected, and can release the allergen into the atmosphere.
• Plants: 38% have plants in the office which can harbour moulds. Moulds release spores and it is these spores that cause allergic reactions.

But even the people we are surrounded by in the workplace can trigger a reaction. 34% of respondents had a pet allergy; and could react to allergens (pet dander) brought in on people's clothes, especially cat allergen. 61% of the office workers questioned sat within a metre of someone else, making the risk even greater.


The survey showed that cleaning of offices is infrequent and doesn't appear adequate enough to prevent the build up of house dust mites and allergens. 37% said their office is cleaned just once a week or less, while a worrying 17% (nearly one in five) said their office is cleaned infrequently.


20% of respondents spent eight hours or more per day at work. Combine this with visibly dusty and cluttered desks, soft furnishings, poorly vacuumed carpets and a lack of ventilation and it is not conducive to a healthy working environment.

Allergies don't just have an impact on the employee. According to the research, they are also having a significant effect on productivity.

73% of those questioned took time off sick in the last 12 months; the majority of the workforce has had some form of sickness in the last year, which is not unusual.

However, the real area of concern is that 42% of allergy sufferers took time off work because of their allergy. 14% of sufferers actually took between four and ten days off sick due to their allergy, figures that could be addressed by actively minimising allergens in the workplace.

There are steps that both employees and employers can take to reduce the likelihood of an allergic reaction at work.

• Ventilation is extremely important. Whether it is windows, trickle vents or an air conditioning system. Ensure that you have clean air in and around you. If however you have hay fever sufferers in the office, keep windows closed for the first part of the morning and also late afternoon
• If you have a heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) unit installed, make sure it is regularly serviced
• If ventilation is limited, use an effective air purifier to help remove and reduce allergens such as pollen, house dust mite debris and mould spores.

• Review flooring and furnishings. Carpets on concrete floors can trap moisture allowing dust mites and mould spores to thrive. Opt for a smooth or flocked Allergy UK approved flooring that has been scientifically tested by Allergy UK and awarded the Seal of Approval.

• Ensure that plants are regularly watered and the top soil removed regularly to avoid moulds, or cover with pea shingle

• Ensure office cleaners have effective cleaning methods and equipment such as a HEPA vacuum cleaner that will ensure that pollens and allergens are trapped adequately

• Take control of your personal desk environment, keep it clear and uncluttered and damp dust
twice a week

• Hang coats away from the desk and 'traffic' areas to prevent dust and allergens from being
disturbed and released into the air

• Drink plenty of water throughout the day and always ensure that you take your prescribed
preventative medication if you have asthma, rhinitis or eczema.

More from Allergy UK.


But is it just the moulds and the mites that are making you feel bad?

Sick building syndrome has been around for some years now and is usually attributed to the moulds and the mites highlighted by Allergy UK, but could electrosmog be making a significant contribution?

If you work in a city you will be entirely surrounded by high levels of electromagnetic radiation (many thousands of times higher than we would have been 20 years ago) from the time you head off for the office until you get back home. If you suffer from headaches, feel excessively tired, get a ringing in your ears or tend to feel generally unwell when in your office (but not at home), then you may be suffering from low level electromagnetic sensitivity.

Most of the radiation you are subject to will be entirely outside your control but there are a few things that you could do to at least reduce the load.

Outside your control – phone masts

If you work in any urban environment you will be surrounded by literally hundreds of mobile phone masts keeping your fellow workers 'connected'. There is nothing that you can do about this but, phone masts are directional and if you have one (you should be able to see it) pointing directly through a window into your office you could either move your desk so there is a wall between you and it, or get some shielding net to protect the window. The wall will not entirely protect you from the radiation but it will significantly reduce it; the net should reduce it very significantly. If you are allowed (unlikely...) you could also paint the wall of the your office between you and the masts with protective paint which will effectively block the radiation.

Outside your control - wifi

Most larger office will used wired connections to their computers so internal wifi is less of an issue than the external wifi you will meet in the street where local authorities are falling over themselves to achieve total internconnected-ness! In the City of London, for example, every lamp post is now wifi enabled and goodness knows how many other city centres have gone down the same route.

Outside your control - getting to work

Underground trains systems such as the London tube system use Tetra (a super high powered mobile phone system) also used by the emergency services, for internal communications. In an underground system, there is nowhere for the radiation to escape to so radiation levels are extremely high. From this point of view buses are a much better option.

However, both buses and trains use fluorescent lighting which, because it flickers, creates small electromagnetic fields and thereby raises levels of ambient electromagnetic radiation.

Main line trains are now nearly all wifi enabled, so you cannot escape.

Of course, in all forms of transport you are also surrounded by other people 'being connected'. There is virtually nothing you can do about this except, if you are travelling by train, use the 'quiet carriage'.

You may be able to influence.... Lighting

Despite the government's desire to thrust it upon us, virtually everyone dislikes having their offices lit by low energy lighting/compact fluorescent bulbs. Even if they have not defined why, most people dislike the light it gives and the 'feeling' in the office when the lights are on. This is amplified by the fact that many lights are seated in reflectors to increase their light – and bounce back the radiation that their flickering creates.

If you can persuade your office to exchange the CFLs for halogen or LED bulbs, excellent. If not, try to ensure that your desk does not sit underneath a light so that it is not shining down on your head. If you need extra light, use a halogen or LED desk light on your desk – and ideally persuade your colleagues to do the same so that you can turn the overhead lights off!

You may be able to influence.... Your computer

Many modern computers do now already come with LED screens but if you do not have one, see if you can swing one! Conventional flat screens use fluorescent bulbs to light them thereby creating further radiation in your immediate environment.

If at all possible, use a wired key board and a wired mouse and disable Bluetooth on your computer. This will significantly reduce the amount of electromagnetic radiation in your immediate vicinity.

You may be able to influence.... Dirty electricity

The electricity which is used for most domestic and office purposes and which powers our computers, televisions, washing machines, lights etc runs at 50 (UK) or 60 (USA) Hz, cycles per second. Although too much of this may be detrimental to health, we seem to be able to tolerate it most of the time pretty well.

However, the smooth flow of this power can get 'contaminated' by radio waves, ground current or some of the many devices that we plug into it (dimmer switches and energy efficient electronic devices are especially to blame) creating surges or peaks in power which create peaks of electromagnetic radiation. This is known as 'dirty electricity' and, in some environments, can be extremely high.

There is not at lot that you can do about its existence but it is possible to filter it, 'flattening out' the peaks and thereby reducing the radiation levels. However the filters are relatively expensive (£35 each) and for a big office you would need several - but your colleagues might suddenly wonder why they were feeling so much better! You can buy them, like the shielding materials, from EM Fields here and also from Ark8 although they want you to buy a whole set to cover a whole house.

You may be able to influence.... Your mobile phone use

This should come under a 'you can influence' heading but, unfortunately, an increasing number of companies are requiring the employees only to use a mobile phone and not providing them with a land line.

Do your best not to agree to this (not always possible) and, if you can, make the majority of your calls from land line – a wired land line, not a hands free phone as the base stations of hands free phone emit radiation at all times, even when you are not using the phone.

When you do use your mobile:

• Use a speakaphone or hold the phone a little way away from your head. The radiation from a phone falls of very quickly so even the thickness of your thumb between the phone and your head will reduce the radiation to which you are subjecting your head.

• If you do need to make long calls, use a hands-free kit – ideally an airtube set - see EMFields again.

• Text rather than talk whenever you can.

• And.... Do not use you mobile as an alarm clock, plugged in, charging, next to your bed and lying on your pillow! If you want to use it as an alarm clock, plug it in next door so that it is at a reasonable distance from you. To build up your resistance to the radiation you may be subject to in your office, you need to sleep in as radiation-free/electric-free an environment as possible so, out with the mobile phone and our with the radio alarm clock and the electric blanket too!

For more information on electromagnetic radiation and electromagnetic sensitivity, see the large section on ES on the the FoodsMatter site here. There are a number of companies supplying shielding and mobile phone devices – you will find many of them listed here – but we find that EMFields is the most comprehensive and the most reliable.


And of course, then there are the chemicals in your office environment.....

This is whole other subject for another article but for general information on multiple chemical sensitivity see the Environmental Illness Resource website here and for a usefuyl list of office chemicals likely to cause problems see pages 8 & 9 of this pdf from the Labour Department of the HongKong government.


First published in September 2012

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