As if you needed an excuse to get away from your desk every once in a while. In a recent study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, researchers at Harvard and Syracuse Universities placed subjects in an environmentally controlled office space for a week, exposed them to different conditions, and observed their performance. What they found was that carbon dioxide levels in offices, though not deadly, are still harmful to your health and negatively affect cognitive function. Blame it on poor ventilation and all that CO2 being exhaled by your co-workers (and you).
While the Mayo Clinic recently constructed an office-environment laboratory to investigate the health impact of the white collar workplace, this study focused solely on air quality. The environments used in this study were made to simulate indoor environmental quality conditions (IEQ). The conditions in the "green" building environment had low volatile organic compound (VOC) concentrations, while the VOC concentration in "conventional" environments were high. There were also conditions categorized as "green+," which had a high outdoor air ventilation rate, and another where CO2 levels were raised artificially. Exposure varied from day to day, and the workers (and researchers) were not aware of which condition they were experiencing at any a given time.
"We didn’t want to test the exotic or extreme, we wanted to test conditions that most of us find ourselves in," Harvard assistant professor Joseph Allen told FastCoDesign.
In some office spaces, there are a lot of people breathing in and out, and when the ventilation rate is not quick enough to move in fresh air from outdoors, the indoor CO2 levels become more concentrated. Participants in the study were given cognitive assessments to see how the conditions affected their work. On average, cognitive scores were 61 percent higher on the green building day and 101 percent higher on the two green+ building days than on the conventional building day, according to the study.
The results suggest that we need to rethink what we've long considered harmless levels of CO2. Moreover, the problem may get worse as CO2 levels increase outdoors, because it then becomes harder to keep them lower indoors. A small-scale solution for companies might be to insure that office environments have proper ventilation so that workers are both comfortable and productive.