The Air We Breathe in the Office May Be Affecting Our Productivity

By Gina Wynn

Among other things, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused us to pay more attention to the air we breathe. Although recent concerns have been focused primarily on stopping the spread of COVID-19 throughout indoor spaces, what many don’t realize is that there are other toxins that circulate through indoor air that can be just as dangerous, including emissions from drywall, carpet, and paint, flame-retardant chemicals on furniture fabrics, and CO2 exhaled by building occupants.

A group of researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health led a study to learn the effects such indoor pollutants have on office workers. They found that poor air quality impacted their cognitive function, reducing participants’ response times, their ability to focus, and most likely, their productivity. The results were published in Environmental Research Letters on September 9, 2021, in the article “Associations between acute exposures to PM2.5 and carbon dioxide indoors and cognitive function in office workers: a multicountry longitudinal prospective observational study.”

“The world is rightly focused on COVID-19, and strategies like better ventilation and filtration are key to slowing infectious disease transmission indoors,” said Joseph Allen, according to a Harvard School of Public Health press release. Allen is an associate professor of exposure assessment science and senior author on the study. “Our research consistently finds that the value proposition of these strategies extends to cognitive function and productivity of workers, making healthy buildings foundational to public health and business strategy moving forward.”

Real-World Analysis

For their study, the researchers gathered data from 300 office workers in urban commercial buildings in the United Kingdom, the United States, China, India, Mexico, and Thailand. Ranging in age from 18 to 65, the participants represented a variety of fields, including engineering, real estate investment, architecture, and technology. They all worked at least three days a week in the office at a permanent workstation.

Using environmental sensors placed in each participant’s workspace, the team was able to monitor the concentrations of fine particulate matter — less than 2.5 microns or PM2.5 — temperature, CO2, and relative humidity in those areas. At scheduled times or when the sensors detected levels of PM2.5 and CO2 higher or lower than predetermined thresholds, participants took cognitive tests and completed surveys through custom-designed apps on their phones.

After a year of evaluation, the results revealed that response times and accuracy typically decreased when concentrations of PM2.5 and CO2 levels increased. The researchers pointed out that participant scores showed impaired cognitive function when PM2.5 and CO2 reached levels that are commonly recorded in the workplace.

Implications for Public Health

For office workers, these findings mean that their well-being could be in jeopardy. Many spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors, according to the Journal of Environmental Health Science and Engineering article “The effect of indoor office environment on the work performance, health and well-being of office workers.”

When toxins get circulated through ventilation systems in modern airtight, energy-efficient buildings, inhabitants can experience “sick building syndrome” that includes symptoms like headaches, itchy eyes, and fatigue. If you have ever struggled to pay attention during meetings in stuffy conference rooms with no windows and ventilation, you were most likely exposed to high levels of CO2.

We can do away with these scenarios and make buildings healthier by improving ventilation that brings in outside air, filtering pollutants from indoor and outdoor air, and choosing to purchase non-toxic furnishings, paints, carpets, and cleaning supplies. By prioritizing occupant health, higher rates of productivity are likely to follow.

“A tiny sacrifice in energy efficiency through improved ventilation could increase a business’s bottom line by as much as 10 percent by decreasing absenteeism and boosting worker productivity,” according to the Science article “The Air Investigator” by Douglas Starr that was citing a statistic from Allen’s research.

Air Purifiers for Filtration

Air filtration is also important for maintaining healthy buildings. It can help remove harmful particulates from recirculated interior air. For removing particulates 2.5 microns or smaller, choose a unit with a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) rating of at least 8, which can remove up to 20 percent of PM2.5. To remove up to 90 percent of PM2.5, the filter should have a MERV rating of at least 14, according to the MERV rating chart on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website.

HEPA filters are also popular and can remove particulates larger than 3 microns that cause asthma and allergies, including pollen, dust mites, and pet dander. They can also help reduce exposure to some bacteria and airborne viruses such as the flu and SARSCoV-2 (but won’t completely remove them from the air). For removing chemical contaminants found in cleaning agents, air purifiers with activated carbon can help trap chemical pollutants.

The Parker CRYSTAL-AIRE™uv Air Purifier is an example of an indoor air filtration system that includes a MERV 8 pre-filter and a HEPA filter.

An unexpected result of the pandemic is that it has already prompted more businesses and property owners to purchase and upgrade their air filtration systems. Perhaps they have realized that by improving office air quality, they will have a better chance of attracting and retaining workers in a post-pandemic world.

Gina Wynn is a Thermo Fisher Scientific staff writer.


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