Perfectionism is just a word until one begins thinking about the role it has played in one’s life. As usual, it is an activity, which when fused with social expectations, becomes an object of practical, moral and economic opinion. Perfectionism is not a “thing” but a tool with which to assess standards and compare outcomes, especially in art, literature and other creative endeavors.
Intelligent-creative people, minorities, and the disabled are held to much higher standards of “achievement” than typically-abled humans.
Google “perfectionism” and a highly negative picture appears. Once again, psychology has made a judgment about PEOPLE who are perfectionists; they are bad, unhappy, trapped in a corner, wasting their lives. We see the “pyramid scheme” poking through: common everyday perfectionists are self-abusers, unhappy, and paradoxically, create failure, but upper echelon “money-makers,” are praised as perfectionists. A start up company, or artistic catalogue, once it becomes “trendy” and profitable, is contrarily opined as a positive result of perfectionism. Long hours, dedication to a goal, the march of progress and final economic success are added to the unending search for human perfection.
Athletes and immigrants are particularly subject to having their lives rewritten as journeys that fulfill the cultural need for success; rags to riches, American Dream, unlimited opportunity; the story of those whose early deprivation presented signs of future fame and influence. Perfect performance is always a component of the myth, but the expectation of perfection can be destructive. How many “celebrity” children are crushed by such demands? And, the distance between failure and perfection grows and grows in American culture. It is no longer enough to be a “millionaire.” One must be a “billionaire.” One cannot simply post a funny video; it must generate millions of views globally. One cannot have a handful of close friends; one must garner the notice of thousands of strangers. And so, the perfect life is money and attention; not for any good reason, just because notoriety is the new “unreachable” scale of perfection.
We lie to children and torment them with one treacherous statement:
“You can be anything you dream of being,” is a bald-faced lie.
This pompous assertion cuts off actual potential by a “mental device” that has become typical in the U.S.; by presenting a socially reverse-engineered pop-culture myth, the “you can be anything” statement is delivered by individuals who have already achieved great success. The accompanying myth of their (supposedly) meteoric rise always includes magical signs that predict greatness – a “lucky” legitimacy and foreshadowing of destiny by a chance meeting with a superstar; an injury that turned out to be a blessing; a lost parent who directs a child’s fate from the afterlife; a sudden supernatural voice, at the right moment, that said, “never give up.” These motivational events happen to almost all humans, but do not produce fame and fortune in the majority. The seed is planted: anything less than extraordinary destiny becomes failure.
Dream big! Achieve little.
The goal of becoming an adult who can find satisfying work, a worthwhile partner and the means to raise a family, has fallen to the bottom of the pyramid, when this “outcome” is the common denominator by which “average people” express the greatest source of happiness. But this achievement is not possible: everyone must put up the appearance of becoming more, and more and more.
I do think that Asperger individuals have a tricky relationship with “perfection”. Perfection as the act of seeking and creating meaningful work I see as no problem, but when our “passion” becomes a “fate” by which we are judged, it becomes a noose that tightens against our “defects”. Expectations as “the gifted child” create a problem: our lives have been laid out before us as a burden and an obligation; “gifts” are dangerous in a mediocre society. This is an ancient human theme in which those who arrive with something “extra” are expected to save everyone’s ass by acts of sacrifice, but are also expected to “disappear” once they are no longer useful.
We see this again and again in young men who are asked to die by old men; soldiers have difficulty in not identifying the two as one and the same: Young males must die for the old. Isn’t this upside down? Why isn’t it the old and useless males, who have had their chance at life who are expected to “volunteer” to “save” young fathers and sons from unwarranted tragedy?
We encounter perfection and want to merge with it, which for me at least, is my subjective experience of “bliss”. Mythologies the world over warn of such improper boundary crossings by humans into the realm of the gods. Countless myths offer up Heroes who are granted “fire stolen from the gods” that costs them everything, but in the long run restores balance to society, which is the real goal of their existence. So, in this philosophy, talents and abilities are not the end in themselves, but means to ends; ends that are available to humans in general when an individual applies his or her abilities toward a realizable goal.
American culture is blind to this deeper and wider actualization of success. In the U.S., only those at the apex of the Pyramid count. The promise is to elevate “the peasants” to the upper levels of the pyramid, but this is logically impossible. The top 1% needs the 99% of humanity at the bottom to fail – and defines failure as “not being” at the top of the hierarchy.
Aspergers are susceptible to being judged on the basis of success as something elevated beyond “normal”. In the neurotypical scheme of life, a child obsessed with knowledge dares to pass into factual reality, which contains the secrets of the universe; a domain where few socially typical individuals dare to go. Taboo, because neurotypical predators crave domination: any “successful” neurotypical would use intelligence to exploit other people. The idea that “Aspergers” have little to no social ambition is simply not credible; in fact it is a source of derision and fear – and opportunity for social predators. .
As a young child I was terribly confused. My intelligence was superficially praised, but harshly received. Intelligence was tested and tracked and presented as important, but forbidden to girls – actualization of “power” was a crime against nature, religion and males of any kind: against all of “defenseless” neurotypical humanity. Ironically, extra abilities and the good fortune of “beauty” could be exploited for family status (marry a rich man, become a “beauty queen”, an actress or celebrity) or to manipulate others behind the scenes to benefit a husband. Selfish ends were quite okay, but a desire to improve a greater sphere of human need was forbidden. To expand knowledge, opinion, laws or the frontiers of human stupidity was, and is, forbidden.
It has taken a lifetime to construct a workable “fix” for myself: Perfection happens. Nature is the domain of perfection and it is informative that nature never rests, but is the continual unfolding of possibilities within a set of laws (boundaries) – a balance of change and continuity that is perfect only in the moment. It’s okay to strive for perfection in creative work, but it’s good to understand that perfection is ephemeral.
Life may be a tool by which the universe acknowledges its own perfection.
However, no human is required to be perfect: What a relief. Nor is any child or adult required to fulfill any expectation that the label “Asperger’s Disorder” attempts to place on them.
Comment: I know little about AI, and this article prompts questions. 1. How does the personality / psychology of a designer(s) of these systems play out in the system’s behavior, that is, if it influences it at all. (What if a very intelligent prey animal designed an AI system?) 2. Is the designation “intelligent” “less intelligent” for an iteration a judgement on the part of the designers, or is it made by the system? 3. Is the Gathering game a model for the transition from small hunter-gatherer communities to the modern complex urban “stress-filled” environment – a result of “switching” to agriculture around 10,000 years ago, and the rapid increase in population driven by the industrial revolution?
Google’s AI Has Learned to Become “Highly Aggressive” in Stressful Situations
Well, that’s just great.
We’ve all seen the Terminator movies, and the apocalyptic nightmare that the self-aware AI system, Skynet, wrought upon humanity.
And behaviour tests conducted on Google’s DeepMind AI system make it clear just how careful we need to be when building the robots of the future. In tests in 2016, Google’s DeepMind AI system demonstrated an ability to learn independently by its own memory, and beat the world’s best Go players at their own game.
Then it started figuring out how to seamlessly mimic a human voice.
More recently in 2017, researchers tested its willingness to cooperate with others, and revealed that when DeepMind feels like it’s about to lose, it opts for “highly aggressive” strategies to ensure that it comes out on top.
The Google team ran 40 million turns of a simple ‘fruit gathering’ computer game that asks two DeepMind ‘agents’ to compete against each other (the male Homo paradigm)to gather as many virtual apples as they could.
They found that things went smoothly so long as there were enough apples to go around, but as soon as the apples began to dwindle, the two agents turned aggressive, using laser beams to knock each other out of the game to steal all the apples.
You can watch the Gathering game in the video below, with the DeepMind agents in blue and red, the virtual apples in green, and the laser beams in yellow: (if video has disappeared go to original article, or youtube)
Interestingly, if an agent successfully ‘tags’ its opponent with a laser beam, no extra reward is given. It simply knocks the opponent out of the game for a set period, which allows the successful agent to collect more apples.
If the agents left the laser beams unused, they could theoretically end up with equal shares of apples, which is what the ‘less intelligent’ iterations of DeepMind opted to do.
It was only when the Google team tested more and more complex forms of DeepMind that sabotage, greed, and aggression set in.
As Rhett Jones reported for Gizmodo back in 2017, when the researchers used smaller DeepMind networks as the agents, there was a greater likelihood for peaceful co-existence. (a model for hunter-gatherer groups?)
But when they used larger, more complex networks as the agents, the AI was far more willing to sabotage its opponent early to get the lion’s share of virtual apples. (a model for modern social human “megalopolis” environments?)
The researchers suggest that the more intelligent the agent, the more able it was to learn from its environment, allowing it to use some highly aggressive tactics to come out on top. (I find this “path” questionable: a correlation is made that “aggressive tactics = intelligent behavior” This is why I suspect that modern western “social pyramid” structure has been “built in” to the AI system by the designers – this is Google after all!)
“This model … shows that some aspects of human-like behaviour emerge as a product of the environment and learning,” one of the team, Joel Z Leibo, told Matt Burgess at Wired. (Hardly a new observation… I dislike it when extremely obvious common knowledge assertions being presented as intellectual “gold”!)
“Less aggressive policies emerge from learning in relatively abundant environments with less possibility for costly action. The greed motivation reflects the temptation to take out a rival and collect all the apples oneself.” (Another obvious statement: do we really need an AI system to “parrot back to us” common social cliches?)
DeepMind was then tasked with playing a second video game, called Wolfpack. This time, there were three AI agents – two of them played as wolves, and one as the prey.
Unlike Gathering, this game actively encouraged co-operation, because if both wolves were near the prey when it was captured, they both received a reward – regardless of which one actually took it down: (if video has disappeared, go to original or youtube)
“The idea is that the prey is dangerous – a lone wolf can overcome it, but is at risk of losing the carcass to scavengers,” the team explains in their paper. (Is this “conceptual” framework, which is not original thinking, but rather a simplistic version of wolf-prey interaction in the “real world” not going to predict the outcome? Is this not a “set up”?)
“However, when the two wolves capture the prey together, they can better protect the carcass from scavengers, and hence receive a higher reward.”
So just as the DeepMind agents learned (or was it built-in the game itself?) from Gathering that aggression and selfishness netted them the most favourable result in that particular environment, they (the agents) learned from Wolfpack that co-operation can also be the key to greater individual success in certain situations. (Another supposedly mind-blowing discovery – NT blah, blah, blah social statement)
And while these are just simple little computer games, the message is clear – put different AI systems in charge of competing interests in real-life situations, and it could be an all-out war if their objectives are not balanced against the overall goal of benefitting us humans above all else. (Wow! What bullshit! The message is that the “status-quo” structure of the social pyramid will be “embedded” in AI systems, to benefit the top 1% of predators, just as society works today.)
Think traffic lights trying to slow things down, and driverless cars trying to find the fastest route – both need to take each other’s objectives into account to achieve the safest and most efficient result for society. (Social agendas, as prescribed by a “certain class of humans” will prevail due to implementation of AI systems that never question the status quo.)
It’s still early days for DeepMind, and the team at Google, but the initial results show that, just because we build them, it doesn’t mean robots and AI systems will automatically have our interests at heart.
Hah! The top predators who control the social hierarchy will make sure that AI systems will not be capable of considering what is best for the rest of “humanity”
Instead, we need to build that helpful nature into our machines (what BS!) and anticipate any ‘loopholes’ that could see them reach for the laser beams.
“AI systems today have impressive but narrow capabilities. It seems that we’ll keep whittling away at their constraints, and in the extreme case, they will reach human performance on virtually every intellectual task. (Translation: AI will not transcend the outrageous narcissism of human self-adoration; it will be constrained to the limits of “our” existing egocentric and minimal intelligence)
It’s hard to fathom how much human-level AI could benefit society, and it’s equally hard to imagine how much it could damage society if built or used incorrectly.”
Tread carefully, humans…
A version of this story was first published in February 2017.
Why is it that in any anthropologic scenario, one group must win and “the other” group must become extinct? There is a difference between one community of people (let’s say the Roanoke Colony), failing to thrive, and this “failure” being proof that all English people became extinct. We project the “winner versus looser” plot onto evolutionary history, that as yet, we do not understand.
Video from the scientific article “U-Th dating of carbonate crusts reveals Neanderthal origin of Iberian cave art” (www.sciencemag.org)
One comment: It continues to baffle the logical Asperger, as to why neurotypicals insist that any intentional mark on a rock, or any other object, is automatically “symbolic” expression and “proves” abstract thought in the brain of the “mark maker” when a drawing can be (and usually is) concrete and literal: the drawing of a cave lion is a lion. The arrangement of lines in a drawing into which animals are being driven, is a corral; the animals are specific animals. “Bad” prehistoric drawings (inept person attempting to draw an object) are not 20th C. abstract art!
John Hawks on evidence of Neanderthal / H. sapiens occupation and cultural sharing in the Carmel area of northern Israel.
The always sane and rational John Hawks…
And for two other narratives, go to:
Social typicals….what a crazy bunch.
Because we are primates! Find the original BBC series; it’s on Netflix.
The bad news: Dear fellow Aspergers – we may not be Homo sapiens; we may not even be primates.
“Normal humans” experience empathy? Psychology’s biggest lie.
Below: An extensive and clearly written discussion of the factors that produce stress in captive animals. I believe that Asperger children are the human equivalent of animals forced to function in a “captive” state, and must endure rejection, neglect and outright hostility on the part of modern social typicals, who are misled by psychologists into believing that ASD / Asperger types are defective subhumans. Many of the symptoms of our so-called “disorder” are reactions to an unhealthy social regime that also harms many typical children.
GOOGLE: Most Downloaded Applied Animal Behaviour Science Articles / First article listed: Sources of Stress in Captivity
Volume 102, Issues 3–4, February 2007, Pages 262–302 / Conservation, Enrichment and Animal Behaviour
Edited By Ronald Swaisgood
Abstract: Animals housed in artificial habitats are confronted by a wide range of potentially provocative environmental challenges. In this article, we review many of the potential stressors that may adversely affect animals living in captivity. These include abiotic, environmental sources of stress such as artificial lighting, exposure to loud or aversive sound, arousing odors, and uncomfortable temperatures or substrates. In addition, confinement-specific stressors such as restricted movement, reduced retreat space, forced proximity to humans, reduced feeding opportunities, maintenance in abnormal social groups, and other restrictions of behavioral opportunity are considered. Research in support of the claims for these environmental elements as stressors for captive animals reveals no unique suite of behavioral or physiological responses that will clearly indicate the cause of those responses; rather, it is up to us as managers and caretakers of animals in captivity to evaluate enclosures and husbandry practices to ensure the optimal well-being of animals (children) in our care.
I think that ASD children and adults will identify with animal behaviors that are a consequences of captivity – for us – confinement in an alien social environment.
A “stressor” in this case may be an actual physical challenge to homeostasis (such as exposure to a sudden change in temperature, physical restraint or combat), or the threat of such a challenge (such as a direct stare from a more dominant individual, or the approach of a human with handling gloves). In either case, stressors result in a cascade of physiological events designed to prepare the body for homeostatic challenge—the so-called “fight or flight” response.
“In contrast to how humans perceive them, the artificial environments typical of captivity are full of sensory stimuli that might be at best alien to an animal, if not overtly stressful. Unnaturally intense, punctate, or constant sound, the odor or sight of historic ecological adversaries, the elimination of scent-marks with daily cage cleaning, the rough and unyielding surfaces of gummite, tile, wire, or concrete, and exposure to aberrant lighting conditions might all be sources of environmental stress for animals in captivity.”
“Traditionally, animals housed in artificial surroundings have been subjected to arbitrary light cycles, commonly 12 h of light alternating with 12 h of dark. On the other hand, constant lighting is a common practice in many agricultural settings (Hester, 1994). Neither of these lighting regimes consider the effect of light cycles on behavior. Constant exposure to extended photoperiods can alter the melatonin to serotonin ratio, affecting the rate of catabolic and anabolic activity of important enzymes in the central nervous system (van Rooijen, 1984). Continuous exposure to light also suppresses circadian activity (Ikeda et al., 2000), and as anyone who has ever experienced jet lag can tell you, disruption of normal circadian rhythms is stressful. In at least one study, varying light conditions produced differences in sleep behavior in rats (Vanbetteray et al., 1991). Disruptions of sleep and circadian cycles have been used to induce stress in some experiments; thus, if lighting conditions can adversely affect sleep, they have obvious impacts on stress.”
“Fluorescent lighting that is favored because of its reduced maintenance costs may also restrict access to particular wavelengths of light needed for optimal animal well-being.”
“Animals continuously subjected to intense noise manifest stress responses by exhibiting elevated levels of arousal (Gamble, 1982), both behaviorally and physiologically. Loud sound is well known to have adverse effects on blood pressure and heart rate in humans (Hagerman et al., 2005 and Smith, 1991) and other animals (Geverink et al., 1998 and Salvetti et al., 2000). Physiologically, prolonged exposure to intense noise is associated with increased activity in the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system. Its prolonged activation is correlated with increased activity in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system, elevated metabolic rates, increased blood pressure, and tachycardia (Ames, 1978, Anthony et al., 1959 and Henkin and Knigge, 1963). This arousal can have deleterious long-term effects on animals that experience it directly (for a review, see Sapolsky et al., 1987), but also on offspring in utero. Exposure of pregnant animals to noise-induced physiological arousal results in immunosupression (Sobrian et al., 1997), exaggerated distress responses to aversive events (Morgan and Thayer, 1997), changes in auditory threshold (Canlon et al., 2003), increased disturbance behaviors (Schneider et al., 2002), impaired learning (Nishio et al., 2001 and Morgan et al., 1999), abnormal social behavior (Clarke and Schneider, 1993 and Morgan et al., 1997), and suppressed exploratory behavior (Poltyrev et al., 1996) in offspring. Such long-term effects of exposure to loud sound are important considerations for conservation-minded managers of animals housed in the typically noisy surroundings of captivity.”
“In comparison, chronic, long-term stress results in prolonged elevation of GCC (glucocorticoids) levels that in effect become self-sustaining, as prolonged high levels of circulating GCCs damage areas of the brain responsible for terminating the stress response.” (This is exactly the ‘problem’ in Asperger anxiety/panic – our brains cannot turn off the stress response.)
Traditional Judeo-Christian Myth goes like this: Women are inferior to men and therefore ought to be submissive in all things. Why? Because God said so.
As a young child on the track to being socialized into the Sisterhood I soon discovered that it is a crime against God, Nature (not actual Nature, but some trumped up feeble concept of nature) and of course, Men, for a female child to wander the world freely, displaying equal confidence, intelligence, and expectations for success – indeed the personal fulfillment that males automatically demand.
What really irked me was being told that when I encountered a male who was less intelligent, I was to pretend to be dumb and helpless. If I didn’t, his feelings would be hurt and his penis wouldn’t work.
If social people had known at the time (1950-60s) that I was Asperger, my life would have been over – my brain handed on a platter to the Priests of psychology for re-education, retraining, and possible water-boarding. I would have been forced into soul-killing conformity. I would have heard ceaseless condemnations about how I was born without empathy, a theory of mind, or the ability to move my eyes properly. I escaped destruction by being born in the pre-Asperger era.
The sad irony is that many males (grudgingly perhaps) did accept my peculiar female presence in the world without much more than an initial statement of surprise. Male coworkers and friends often noted that my confidence and abilities were unusual, but not unwelcome; a few discovered that it was possible for men and women to have real conversations about real things.
As expected in a hierarchy, low-ranking males must continually adapt o being pushed around by higher-ranking males; the “disturbance” I caused was about where to place a female like me in the male gang hierarchy. The favored tactic was to treat me “like a girl”; expecting me to do menial chores like bringing coffee for everyone to meetings. I put salt in the coffee pot the first time I was asked: end of battle.
The Hell that awaits Asperger girls is the special hatred that comes from the Sisterhood of “socially normal” female killer-cannibals who defend the status quo of “female inferiority” as required by infantile social rules (netoney) Women are expected to fight to the death in a tiny segregated social arena, and not to succeed outside that combat zone. No one who has seen “normal” females gang up on the nonconforming female can deny their blood lust.
No female who has been the object of their wrath can shake the shock of vicious betrayal by her own sex. The fair treatment and trust that Asperger individuals crave from birth are dashed. It’s like being clubbed to death by a gang of cheerleaders in scary make up. Yes Ladies, that’s what it’s like to be attacked by NT females.
University requirements for aspiring cheerleaders. A little obvious? White gals preferred.
Regarding the supposedly “developmentally defective” state of ASD – Asperger individuals as “over-sensitive” to the environment: The faulty assumption is made that “typical, normal, typically developing” humans are not affected by, or damaged by, manmade environments. This is preposterous –
The list of chemical pollutants below encompasses only those substances common in buildings: one cannot escape these dangers by retreating to the outdoors. All environments on the planet have been altered by human activity. This list also does not include overcrowding, industrial accidents, destruction of natural environments, extinction of plants and animals necessary to healthy systems, lack of clean water, nutritious food and the effects of processed foods. And those basic toxic social activities: war, violence and abuse of every imaginable type wherever hyper-social humans dominate the environment.
The Environmental Illness Resource: Mission Statement
“The Environmental Illness Resource seeks to provide those with environmental illnesses with information of the highest quality in the hope that this will lead to improved quality of life and perhaps even recovery of good health. In addition, to provide a free and open online community in which members may exchange information between themselves and support each other in their healing journeys.”
Various chemical pollutants that can affect the health of a building’s occupants are produced when heating systems or gas fired appliances such as stoves are poorly maintained, and thus don’t burn fuel efficiently, or don’t vent exhaust correctly.
The main pollutants from this source are:
Carbon Monoxide (CO) – a gaseous asphyxiant, CO is known as the ‘silent killer’ as it is colourless and odourless. When it is breathed in CO binds to red blood cells preventing them from carrying oxygen and essentially suffocating the victim. Methylene Chloride may also breakdown to form Carbon Monoxide as well. Methylene Chloride is a common toxic solvent used in many products such as paint and paint strippers. Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) – is a colourless gas with a strong odour like that of a struck match. Sulphur dioxide is an irritant to the respiratory system and exposure to high concentrations for short periods of time can constrict the blood vessels in the lungs and increase mucous flow, making breathing difficult. Those most at risk from these effects include children, the elderly, those with chronic lung disease, and asthmatics. Other harmful effects of SO2 include it’s ability to impair the respiratory system’s defenses against foreign particles and bacteria when chronically exposed to low concentrations, and enhance the harmful effects of ozone.
Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) – is another toxic gas produced from combustion of fuels. It can be fatal in high concentrations, whilst lower levels, like SO2, act as irritants to lung tissue. Long term low level exposure can destroy lung tissue and lead to emphysema. Long term exposure also makes people more susceptible to respiratory infections such as pneumonia and influenza. The risk of ill-effect is greatest for the same groups most affected by SO2.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
Volatile organic compounds are organic (carbon-based) compounds that evaporate at ambient temperatures within a building. VOCs can ‘offgas’ from building materials and much of the contents of most buildings. These compounds often have effects on health from irritating the eyes, nose, and throat, to causing breathing difficulties, to increasing the risk of developing cancer. An example of a VOC commonly present in indoor air is formaldehyde, which is also one of the most toxic being both a strong respiratory irritant, and carcinogen.
Building Construction – High levels of formaldehyde offgas from particle board. Modern buildings or buildings renovated with modern materials suffer the most from offgassing of VOCs due to the extensive use of particle board rather than solid wood or stone/brick for interior walls etc. Particle board is also often used in place of solid wood in modern furniture such as computer desks and shelving. Although a cheap alternative to other materials, particle board is a major source of VOCs due to the high content of powerful adhesives used in its manufacture. Formaldehyde and other VOCs offgas from particle board used in building construction and furniture for years, with the highest concentrations being generated in the first 6 months.
Carpeting is another major source of VOCs in many buildings since a large number of chemicals are used in their manufacture in the form of glues, backing materials, flame retardants, and dyes. The specific VOCs that offgas from new carpet include acetone, toluene, xylene, formaldehyde, and benzene derivatives. These chemicals are all known to cause irritation, effect breathing, and produce various neurological symptoms. Many of them are also potent carcinogens.
Finishes such as paints and varnishes can also increase the VOC content of a building or room. That fresh paint smell is the result of paints high content of VOCs in the form of solvents and binders. In the case of oil based paints, whose use if thankfully being reduced in indoor paints, the entire base of the paint is made up of VOCs. The US EPA has determined that the off-gassing from architectural coatings is estimated to account for about 9% of the VOC emissions from all consumer and commercial products. Many of the VOCs used in paints have ben banned or are being phased out as they are now recognized to be highly toxic and/or carcinogenic.
Chemicals Used Within A Building – The various chemical based products routinely used inside a building can be an equally large source of VOCs. Products that contain VOCs range from chemical products used to clean a building to marker pens and printer ink, common in an office or school environment.
Cleaning products contain a range of toxic VOCs including diethyl phthalate, found in a range of products, toluene, found in stain removers, and hexane/xylene, found in aerosol sprays. Diethyl Phthalate is a known endocrine disrupter (interferes with hormone activity), toluene is a known carcinogen (cancer causing agent) and can cause neurological problems, and finally both hexane and xylene can also damage the nervous system.
Marker pens are a particularly concentrated source of VOCs as their very strong smell indicates. Their chemical constituents include methyl ethyl ketone (MEK), toluene, and formaldehyde. The VOCs present in marker pens have various consequences for human health including neurological effects. Ink cartridges and toners used in printers also contain VOCs, albeit at less concentrated levels than marker pens.
Electronic equipment also offgases a large amount of VOCs. In an office full of computers, these essential pieces of equipment can be a substantial source of VOCs which offgas from materials such as flame retardants and various other chemicals used in their manufacture.
Besides the above there are many other sources of VOCs within the average office building or other communal building. These include air fresheners, personal care products such as deodorants and perfumes, and laundry detergent and fabric softener residues on the occupants clothing.
For a more detailed look at some of these VOC sources see our multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) page.
Although much has been done to reduce or eliminate the use of heavy metals in buildings in over the past few decades, older buildings may still contain a significant amount of these highly toxic substances. Buildings built or extensively renovated after the early 90’s in most developed countries are not likely to have a problem, but many buildings constructed before this time could pose a risk for heavy metal poisoning. The two most common heavy metals present in buildings are lead and mercury.
Indoor paint manufactured before 1990 and outdoor latex paint manufactured before 1991 may contain mercury, which was added to paint mainly to prevent build up of mold on walls, as mercury is an effective antifungal agent. Mercury can damage health in a number of ways, from impairing detoxification to causing serious neurological damage and birth defects. In fact, the mercury containing compound thimerosal was routinely added to vaccines to prevent contamination by fungi and bacteria until concern about its role in causing autism recently lead to its removal. (This does not translate to: vaccines themselves cause autism.) Mercury may also be present in small amounts in computer and electronic equipment.
Lead is another common problem in older buildings because it was also added to paints until a couple of decades ago. Lead-based paint is still a major problem in older buildings particularly when the residues are disturbed and become airborne such as during renovation or construction projects. Like mercury, lead can cause severe neurological damage and a host of other problems.
Unless disturbed by renovation it’s unlikely that heavy metals would be a major contributor to cases of sick building syndrome. For older buildings the risk is there however so must always be considered. (note that poor people are more likely to be chronically exposed to “sick” buildings)
As well as the chemical pollutants described above, various biological contaminants often contribute to cases of sick building syndrome. In fact biological factors are reported to be behind the majority of cases. These biological pollutants can cause illness through three different mechanisms:
- Toxicosis – symptoms caused by toxins produced by micro-organisms e.g. mycotoxins produced by mold/fungi
There are many sources of biological pollution that can affect a building and many reasons why a building might become contaminated and cause illness in its occupants.
The following are the main sources of this form of pollution:
Toxic Black Mold – is reported to be the leading cause of sick building syndrome and building related illness. Mold grows rapidly in warm and damp environments. If the indoor environment is too humid or if water damage occurs through leaks or rising damp, mold growth is very likely to occur.
Viruses & Bacteria – are common in every building, especially high occupancy buildings such as offices and schools. These micro-organisms can make a significant contribution to causing SBS. They become increasingly problematic if humidity levels are either too low or too high, as a result of how their growth is affected and the fact that our defenses against them are also affected by humidity levels.
Dust Mites – are highly allergenic and thrive on the constant supply of shed human skin cells that accumulate in carpeting, soft furnishings, and other areas. Like mold and bacteria, dust mites like the warm and relatively humid environment that we usually provide in our buildings.
Pollen – is another allergy causing substance that can accumulate in a building if proper ventilation and filtering is not maintained. Pollens from various trees and plants can be troublesome for a great number of people. Aside from being carried on breezes through open doors or windows, pollens can also be brought indoors on the occupants shoes and clothing.
Insect Body Parts – although not well known are especially potent allergens for some people. Cockroach allergens are particularly troublesome allergens and are commonly implicated as contributors to sick building syndrome. Usually become a problem only when sanitation is poor.
The above are collectively known as bioaerosols. The common definition of a bioaerosol is any extremely small living organism or fragment of living things suspended in the air. They cannot be seen without a magnifying glass or microscope. Of course when a large growth of mold occurs, it does then become visible to the naked eye.
Reasons For a Building Becoming Contaminated by Bioaerosols
Moisture –The primary reason why bioaerosols become a major problem in buildings is the presence of damp in the buildings structure and/or a high level of humidity in the air. There are numerous reasons why such a situation could arise, some of the most common being:
- Water damage to homes from flooding or storm damage.
- Leaks in plumbing, roofs, or from air conditioners or HVAC systems.
- Condensation on central air pipes, HVAC components, or other cool surfaces where insulation may not be present, is insufficient, or has become damaged. Uninsulated air conditioning coils or pipes will “sweat” the most when hot humid air contacts them such as during warm months.
- Ice damming on building roofs which allows water to seep under shingles and through roof sheathing.
- Dehumidifiers and humidifiers.
- Moisture from unvented or poorly vented kitchens and bathrooms.
- Poor insulation causing drafts or the “chimney effect”.
- Defective heating and air systems such as clogged condensation drain lines and full drip pans.
Hygiene and Cleaning – Poor sanitary and cleaning practices also contribute to a building becoming contaminated with bioaerosols. In a high occupancy building for example, germs from bathrooms can easily be spread to the rest of the building if they are not cleaned and disinfected both effectively and regularly. People not washing their hands after using the bathroom can also be a big problem.
Another problem is often inadequate or poorly maintained cleaning equipment. A poorly functioning vacuum cleaner for example can do more harm than good by spreading dust around rather than picking it up. As we have heard, dust is a breeding ground for micro-organisms like dust mites that cause allergies in many people. It may also contain other allergens such as pollens that have either blown into the building or been carried in by the occupants. Dust may also harbour disease causing bacteria and other unpleasant organisms. Efficient vacuum cleaners are thus essential pieces of equipment for avoiding a sick building. Models equipped with HEPA filters which remove even the tinniest particles are infinitely preferable.
Going back to chemical pollutants, growing research shows that chemicals, such as flame retardants that are commonly used in electrical equipment and on furniture, accumulate in dust. If a building is not kept free from dust by regular and effective cleaning, the amounts of chemicals present will only increase and pose an ever greater risk for the occupants health.
Other Factors That May Contribute to Sick Building Syndrome
Besides the more obvious chemical and biological pollutants that are commonly present in buildings and can lead to SBS, there are a number of more subtle factors that can also contribute, sometimes significantly. The most common of these are:
Fluorescent Lighting and Electrical Equipment – People commonly report feeling unwell after spending time in buildings lit entirely with fluorescent strip lighting. The flickering light is very harsh and tends to give even otherwise healthy people headaches and make them feel drained. Many people also complain of feeling unwell when they spend time close to computer screens and other electrical equipment. It has been suggested that high frequency electromagnetic fields (EMFs) which are generated by electrical equipment and a building’s wiring can cause a host of unpleasant symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, and inability to concentrate. Electrical Hypersensitivity (EHS) is the term used to describe the condition in which people are made ill by electromagnetic radiation.
Temperature – Although many would dismiss the ambient temperature within a building as a minor consideration, an environment that is either too hot or too cold can have a major effect on how people feel. With extremes of temperature the body has to work hard to maintain its own internal temperature at the right level. With resources focused on this task people can quickly become tired and drained and experience a wide range of symptoms. If the temperature is too hot for prolonged periods for example, people can become dehydrated with potentially serious consequences for their health.
Humidity – again can put a strain on the body as it tries to maintain equilibrium. Like high temperature, a very humid environment can lead to dehydration and associated problems.
Noise – is an equally important factor. Too much noise can be draining and produce headaches and other symptoms. It also makes it hard to concentrate so impacts on the productivity of workers in an office for example.
Bad Office Design/Ergonomics – A badly designed workplace can cause numerous health problems. A cramped office with uncomfortable furniture can result in injuries such as those to the back as well as injuries such as repetitive strain injury (RSI) from repetitive tasks such as typing.
Psychological Stress – is another important consideration in an office building in particular. Stress can be caused by work pressures such as deadlines but also by all of the other factors we’ve discussed here that often relate to a building’s design. Stress is a leading cause of absenteeism as it can result not only in psychological distress but also many physical ailments as well. In many cases, SBS is a major issue and requires a complete redesign in order to rectify the problem. If an office or room needs to be stripped down and redesigned with new items, then a quick Google search might be in order. Or you could check out the Homeclick Twitter feed for contemporary ideas. In the end, the problem (if not remedied) will eventually worsen, creating an uncomfortable and potentially hazardous workplace.
What Can be Done About Sick Building Syndrome?
If you and other people living or working in the same building experience health problems that seem to only be present when you are in that building, or at least get much worse, then it is reasonable to suspect sick building syndrome. You should report the situation to the landlord, office manger, or whomever is responsible for the building and ask them to have an inspection carried out. If they are unwilling to cooperate then you may have to get local authorities such as an environmental health agency involved.
After a thorough environmental health inspection is carried out on a building to determine possible causes for the occupants health complaints, there are many measures that can be taken to rectify the situation. A combination of some of the factors we’ve discussed above will usually be involved and all will have to be tackled. Measures taken may include an overhaul or replacement of the ventilation system, structural repairs to prevent leaks and damp, a review of chemicals used in the building, a review of cleaning practices, and professional mold removal.
The important thing is to take action to have a suspected sick building investigated as soon as possible as it is likely that the problem will only get worse if not addressed.