Less-Ventilated Energy-Efficient Buildings Reduce Indoor Air Quality, Harming Cognitive Performance

(p. D6) A new study shows that poor indoor air quality is associated with subtle impairments in a number of cognitive functions, including our ability to concentrate and process information. The study tracked 302 office workers in commercial buildings in six countries — the United States, Britain, China, India, Mexico and Thailand — for 12 months.

The scientists used monitors to measure ventilation and indoor air quality in the buildings, including levels of fine particulate matter, which includes dust and minuscule particles from smoking, cleaning products and outdoor air pollution that seeps into the building. The workers were asked to use an app to take regular cognitive tests during the workday. The tests included simple math problems, as well as a tricky color and word brain teaser called the Stroop test, in which a word like “blue” or “purple” is printed in green or red ink.  . . .

The study found that the office workers in buildings with the poorest indoor air quality tended to perform worse on the brain teasers. While the effect wasn’t dramatic, the findings add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that the air we breathe affects brain health.

. . .

“This study looked at how several factors in the indoor environment have an immediate impact on our cognitive function and performance,” said Joseph G. Allen, the director of the Harvard Healthy Buildings program and the study’s senior author. “This study shows that the air you’re breathing at your desk at that moment has an impact on how well you think.”

In the past, air quality control in buildings has been mostly focused on energy efficiency and comfort, with little consideration given to infection control or overall worker health.

. . .

Dr. Allen is the co-author of a new book, “Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity.” He said he’s been encouraged to see more businesses and individuals taking indoor air quality more seriously as a result of the pandemic. Recently he saw a job posting at a major company advertising for a “head of healthy buildings” in the company’s global real estate division.

“It tells you that serious companies are changing how they approach their buildings, and they’re not thinking about this as a one-off during Covid,” said Dr. Allen.

. . .

“The pressure is coming from employees, parents of kids in school, teachers — there’s a heightened level of awareness and expertise,” said Dr. Allen. “How many people were talking about MERV 13 filters prior to the pandemic? This knowledge that our indoor spaces have been underperforming is not going away. I think people are rightly frustrated and fed up with it.”

For the full story, see:

Tara Parker-Pope. “What Bad Indoor Air Could Do to Your Brain.” The New York Times (Tuesday, September 28, 2021): D6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Sept. 28, 2021, and has the title “Is Bad Indoor Air Dulling Your Brain?”)

The book co-authored by Allen, and mentioned above, is:

Allen, Joseph G., and John D. Macomber. Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020.

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