Poor Indoor Air Quality Linked to Impaired Brain Function

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The importance of clean air may seem like a no-brainer – the oxygen we breathe reaches every single part of the body and pure, fresh air genuinely feels better. Beyond the physical benefits, it now appears clean may also help our brains to function at their best. Researchers from Harvard recently conducted a study to look at the differences, if any, between the cognitive abilities of those working in conventional office spaces with “tight envelopes of air” with those of employees in “green” buildings with cleaner air. The study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives – a peer-reviewed journal which is associated with the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – showed that not only did the subjects do better on the cognitive tests when working in the cleaner settings, they did significantly better.

Researchers were prompted to study this based on the time we spend indoors – close to 90% of our time – plus the fact that some buildings can negatively affect our wellbeing. The impact a dwelling can have on our health is a somewhat recent phenomenon. When energy costs began to increase in the last third of the twentieth century, construction methods changed to improve energy efficiency. Though air tight structures are designed to lock out the elements and keep in the heating and cooling, they also trap in airborne pollutants. By the early 1980s we saw the emergence of the phenomenon known as the Sick Building Syndrome (SBS). SBS is a collection of symptoms such as tightness in the chest, achy muscles, headache, cough, throat irritation, etc. which affect the people living or working in a building. People who suffer from SBS typically experience relief upon leaving said structure. SBS has become an increasingly prevalent occupational hazard as the years have passed and buildings have become more airtight and energy efficient than ever. This has been shown to slow productivity and cause absenteeism.

Problems with Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) are not only related to ventilation. Sometimes factors such as humidity or exposure to allergens contribute to occupational health complaints. Another major problem is the presence of materials which off-gas or emit Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) like paint and furniture. Of course, poor ventilation exacerbates the situation but the presence of irritants is a serious modern problem as well.

The advent of these problems associated with newer building practices has prompted new strategies for design and building which are more sustainable and green, better for both the environment and the health of those who spend their time in these spaces. Energy efficiency is still a major feature, but new consideration has been given to the use of low-emitting materials, the limitation of other sources of pollutants, as well as an emphasis on ventilation and filtration. “Green” buildings typically report having lower concentrations of common pollutants like allergens, VOCs, nitrogen dioxide, and particulate matter. As a result, people living and working in buildings report fewer symptoms when surveyed. Productivity is also shown to be higher is such buildings.

The authors of this study chose to look at cognitive function to determine if the so-called “green” spaces are actually better for three reasons. First, self-reporting and surveys are not particularly reliable sources of information. Second, there hadn’t been any other research into this specific variable. Third, there is no question that brain function plays a major role in office productivity. Several different environments to simulate what workers may experience in “Conventional” offices (high VOC volume) and “Green” workspaces (low level of VOCs). In addition, recent research indicating that carbon dioxide may also be a direct pollutant prompted the team to include a “Green+” group which worked in an area with higher ventilation rates.

Twenty-four high-level professionals (designers, architects, programmers, engineers, managers, etc.) without asthma or other health problems reported to a test lab mid-week – to avoid any post or pre-weekend effects. Each day they were exposed to varying types of air for the length of that day. At 3pm the subjects were given tasks to test their cognitive skills.

The results of these tests were significantly better when the subjects were in the “Green” and “Green+” settings. Although the authors agree that more research is necessary, the study shows that attention needs to be paid to air quality not only in the workplace but also in places such as airplanes and hospitals, where safety could be negatively impacted when decision-making abilities aren’t at their sharpest.

In recent years, poor air quality has been linked to suicide, as well as impaired brain development in children. Improved brain function is now one more thing which can be chalked up to the importance of clean air. The conditions of the “Conventional” workspace were similar to what the majority of people encounter at work and home. If structural changes, such as improved ventilation, are not immediately feasible – it may be worth considering investing in a medical-grade, HEPA air purifier to remove VOCs, particulate matter, allergens, and other airborne pollutants from your home and office.