Controlled laboratory experiments yield evidence that air quality in conventional offices will impact our cognitive abilities, compared to the quality in ‘green’ offices and buildings.
Over a period of six days, a team of researchers recreated a variety of air quality conditions, and simultaneously conducted cognitive tests of volunteers under the various conditions to determine whether poor or even average air quality impacts our cognitive abilities.
Manipulating in a laboratory setting the amount of airborne Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), which are pollutants created in a typical office (from copying machines, for example), the researchers recreated the indoor environmental quality (IEQ) of conventional (high VOCs) and green (low VOCs) buildings. Adding a high outdoor ventilation rate to the green condition, the researchers simulated a third environmental condition, the green+ condition. Finally, the researchers tested, independent of the other tests, the impact of various CO2 levels, specifically at optimal (green) levels, at recommended levels, and at high (but not uncommonly high) levels.
During the six days of the experiment, a group of 24 volunteers worked 8 hours a day on tests and assignments designed to measure their cognitive abilities. Specifically, they were tested on:
The researchers then compared the cognitive scores to the different conditions. The results showed that, on average, cognitive scores were 61% higher when the IEQ reflected Green levels, and 101% higher when the IEQ reflected Green+ levels. For the Green+ day, cognitive abilities were higher in all nine domains tested.
It’s important to emphasize that the environmental conditions created were not extreme. The Conventional environmental condition reflected the indoor air quality of the typical office, while the Green condition reflected air quality in Green buildings. In addition, the tests were blind — unlike field experiments, the participants never knew in which environmental condition they were working.
The implications are clear. Improving indoor environmental conditions is not just a matter of being environmentally friendly or even of improving the health of your employees. You are also improving your employees’ productivity, efficiency and effectiveness, and decision-making abilities. For your people and for your company, an investment in better internal environmental conditions yields a variety of positive returns.
Associations of Cognitive Function Scores with Carbon Dioxide, Ventilation, and Volatile Organic Compound Exposures in Office Workers: A Controlled Exposure Study of Green and Conventional Office Environments. Joseph G. Allen, Piers MacNaughton, Usha Satish, Suresh Santanam, Jose Vallarino & John D. Spengler. Environmental Health Perspectives (June 2016).
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