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How Bad Air Affects Your Mind

If your office is a newer, energy efficient one with dedicated ventilation, you might actually be thinking better than your peers who work in typical older efficiency offices, where it turns out indoor pollutants are potentially accumulating at higher levels. This news comes from a Harvard School of Public Health study that tested workers in green vs. “non-green” office conditions. The study was double blinded, meaning neither the participants nor the investigators knew whether the air quality in a controlled environment was bad or good when the tests were run. For the study the researchers evaluated the decision-making performance of 24 professionals including architects, designers, programmers, engineers, creative marketing professionals and managers while the participants worked in a laboratory where the environment could be manipulated and air quality adjusted. The Harvard team wanted to assess the impact of ventilation, chemicals, and carbon dioxide on employees’ cognitive function because as buildings have become more energy efficient, they have also become more airtight, increasing the potential for poor indoor air quality unless ventilation to maintain air quality is part of the design. They reported that when air quality was best the workers scored 131 percent higher in response to crises than when it was poor. Under the same conditions the workers scored 288 percent higher in strategizing and 299 percent higher in information usage.

My take: You probably can’t do much about the indoor environment where you work other than draw attention to the findings of the Harvard study. The improvements in thinking seen when the air was most “clean” should impress managers concerned about the productivity of their workers. If you’re apprehensive about the air quality at home you might read up on the various sources of indoor air pollution and consider incorporating solutions from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). I often recommend HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters to people who have allergies to pollen, dust, or other particulates and to those who live with smokers or in smoggy urban areas. These devices work by forcing air through screens containing microscopic pores, which remove all airborne particles above a very small size. Over the years, I've found that HEPA filters work very well and aren't too expensive.