HEALTHY LIVING
10/25/2012 12:10 am ET

Carbon Dioxide Levels In Meeting Rooms, Classrooms Could Affect Decision-Making: Study

Science now confirms that it's really not your fault if you zone out during that three-hour meeting.

A new study shows that being exposed to increased carbon dioxide in confined spaces -- levels you'd find in a meeting room or classroom where there's lots of carbon dioxide being exhaled by multiple people -- can actually have a negative impact on your decision-making skills.

"In our field we have always had a dogma that CO2 itself, at the levels we find in buildings, is just not important and doesn't have any direct impacts on people," study researcher William Fisk, a Berkeley Lab scientist, said in a statement. "So these results, which were quite unambiguous, were surprising."

The researchers noted that typical carbon dioxide concentrations outside are approximately 380 parts per million, while inside office buildings, the concentrations usually aren't any higher than 1,000 parts per million. However, in classrooms, researchers found that carbon dioxide concentrations can go be as high as 3,000 parts per million, or more. (Federal occupational exposure guidelines for carbon dioxide concentrations are 5,000 parts per million for eight hours.)

The study, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, set out to evaluate how different levels of carbon dioxide impacted brain functioning performance in people. Researchers from the Berkeley Lab and the State University of New York Upstate Medical University conducted their study on 22 adults (mostly college students).

In groups of four, the students were put into a chamber. They were exposed to three different carbon dioxide concentrations for two-and-a-half hours for each concentration (with an hour break between each two-and-a-half hour session). The concentrations were 600 parts per million, 1,000 parts per million and 2,500 parts per million. As the study participants were in each carbon dioxide concentration, they completed computer tests to determine their decision-making skills.

The researchers found that when the study participants were in the 1,000 parts per million carbon dioxide concentration, their performance decreased in six of the nine elements of the test. And their performance on the test got even worse when they were in the 2,500 parts per million carbon dioxide concentration.

Specifically, study participants' scores for "taking initiative" and "thinking strategically" plummeted the most with the higher carbon dioxide concentrations.

Researchers acknowledged that more study is needed to replicate the findings, so it's still too early to say if ventilation standards need to be changed. But "people who are employers who want to get the most of their workforce would want to pay attention to this," Fisk said in the statement.

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