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COLUMN: Link between indoor air quality and employee productivity

by Colin Isaacs
EcoLog, 12/4/2015 12:24:00 PM

The results of a new study carried out by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health indicate that people who work in buildings with typical indoor air quality are not realizing their full cognitive potential compared to those who work in buildings with improved indoor air quality. In other words, if a building has poor air quality then the people who work within it are not achieving their full potential in terms of learning, remembering, problem-solving, and paying attention.

The differences found were significant: on average, cognitive scores were from 61% to 101% higher in air quality typical of Green buildings than in air quality typical of Conventional buildings. The largest effects were seen for Crisis Response, Information Usage, and Strategy. 

For Crisis Response, scores were from 97% to 131% higher for the better air quality conditions. For Information Usage, scores in the better air quality conditions were from 172% to 299% higher than Conventional. For Strategy, which tests the participants’ ability to plan, prioritize and sequence actions, the scores in better air quality conditions were from 183% to 288% higher than the Conventional conditions.    

The research appears to be very thorough though the samples are, for now, tiny. The double-blinded study was undertaken with 24 professional-grade employees (architects, designers, programmers, engineers, creative marketing professionals, managers) in the Syracuse, New York, area and included repeated measures of cognitive function on the same individual, characterization of potential confounding indoor environmental quality variables, and mid-week testing to avoid Monday/Friday effects. All participants received the same exposures on each day, with exposures varying each day. 

The researchers created low volatile organic compound (VOC) (Green) and high VOC (Conventional) building conditions, both at the ASHRAE standard ventilation rate. They also studied association of full workday exposure to carbon dioxide (CO2) on cognitive function, holding all other variables constant. 

A wide range of indoor environmental quality indicators was monitored: CO2, temperature, relative humidity, barometric pressure, sound levels, VOCs, aldehydes, NO2, O3, PM2.5, and light. The cognitive assessment was performed daily using a validated, computer-based test, designed to test the effectiveness of management-level employees through assessments of higher-order decision-making. 

The Harvard study is not the first to identify a link between cognitive function and indoor air quality though it may be one of the most definitive. The problem exists not only in office environments, as evaluated in this study, but also in residential, commercial, institutional, and industrial settings. 

A study from the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology (Spain), published earlier in 2015 in the journal PLOS Medicine, links exposure to air pollution to cognitive development of children in schools. 

Another study published in 2015 from the University of Texas at El Paso found that children exposed to toxic air pollutants at home are more likely to have lower grade point averages than those from less polluted environments. 

This growing body of research poses a range of risks and opportunities for business. A company that takes measures to improve indoor air quality may have improved employee productivity compared to a company whose employees work in an environment with poor air quality. LEED®-certified buildings are likely to have better air quality than Conventional and older buildings. Even in older buildings, indoor air quality can be improved through such measures as improved ventilation, reduction of use of materials and products that emit volatile organics, and removal of particulates through improved cleaning and air filters.

On the risk to the industry side of the ledger, the increasing body of evidence linking poor indoor and outdoor air quality to cognitive impairment opens the door to demands for stricter air pollution regulations and class action lawsuits from families who claim that their children's IQ has been reduced by exposure to pollutants from neighbouring sources.

Colin Isaacs is a scientist who has been advising governments and the private sector on issues such as waste reduction, reuse, recycling, stewardship, environmental management, and social responsibility since 1980. He is currently working for the CIAL Group and can be reached at (416) 410-0432 (phone); (416) 362-5231 (fax); and colin@cialgroup.com (e-mail).

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