The more polluted the office air, the worse people perform

FM newsroom – office, IAQ. Indoor air can often be more polluted than outdoor air, especially in offices, which are loaded with coworkers. A study found that polluted office air not only makes us unhealthy but also slows us down on cognitive tests and makes it easier to get distracted.

Indoor air can often be more polluted than outdoor air, especially in offices, which are loaded with coworkers. That’s because our buildings are often filled with the same smog that’s outside, but indoor air also mingles with the CO2 people exhale.

Bad news gets worse

As Fast Company writes, referring to a study conducted by Harvard University, indoor air quality affects not only our health but also our mental skills. The study, involving hundreds of office workers from all over the world, found that polluted office air also slows us down on cognitive tests and makes it easier to get distracted. 

The average age of the survey participants was 33 years, which is relevant because air research is generally conducted on the most vulnerable groups: the very young or very old. Each worker placed an air sensor on their desk measuring the CO2 and fine particulate matter (the tiny debris floating in the air) they were breathing at any moment. Then, through a smartphone app, these workers were asked to take a cognitive test several times over the year. This way, researchers could see the pollution levels around the office workers at the very moment those workers were taking the test.

The most disturbing finding was that there was a direct relationship between the amount of fine particulate matter in the air and how poorly people performed on mental tests. The more polluted the air, the worse people performed.

How bad are the cognitive effects of bad air? 

According to Harvard research associate Jose Guillermo Cedeno Laurent, who led the study, if the office is filled with polluted air, the cognitive effects are noticeably slower, whether it is an interview situation or just writing down data. He also added that any time someone gets a call while working, that’s a distraction. And a mind working in dirty air will be slower at managing these distractions throughout the day.

What causes poor indoor air quality? 

Poor indoor air quality (IAQ) occurs when the building has poor ventilation. The indoor air can’t escape, and the outdoor air can’t easily enter the building. Poor IAQ can result in ‘sick building’ syndrome. According to Ergolink, the main contributors to poor indoor air quality are the design and maintenance of the building, the level of moisture and humidity, and pollutants and odours.

variety of pollutants can easily be found in a building. The three main groups are chemical pollutants, biological pollutants and particles.

Chemical pollutants are emitted by items in an office, such as furniture, carpet, paint, and equipment. Cigarette smoke, cleaning chemicals, spills, and gases such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide can all affect air quality.

Biological pollutants include bacteria, fungi, mould, viruses, pollen, dust mites, and animal dander. They are caused by condensation, water spills, poor maintenance of filtration and ventilation systems, and even by occupants bringing in pollutants on their clothes and shoes.

Particles, such as dust floating in the air, can be visible, but many are invisible to the human eye. They can occur from photocopying, printing, building and fit-out work, or they may have entered the building through the ventilation system.

Indoor air quality is a solvable problem 

Joseph Allen, an associate professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health, told Fast Company that the simple solution is to bring in more air from outside the building to reduce CO2 and use quality filters. He also pointed out that building managers should ensure that they aren’t housing more employees than the building’s planned occupancy levels.

Ergolink also highlighted that adding indoor plants to the office, swapping chemical cleaners for greener options, and reducing clutter and dust on surfaces can also help.



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