SCIENCE
10/26/2015 07:43 pm ET | Updated Oct 27, 2015

Poor Indoor Air Quality Linked To Workers' Low Cognitive Function

A new Harvard study shows that reducing pollutants and carbon dioxide can have a "profound impact" on decision-making.

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Running into mental blocks at your desk job? A new Harvard study says you may be able to blame it on the air quality in your office. 

In a paper published Monday in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, a team of researchers found that people working in well-ventilated "green" buildings with below-average indoor air pollution and carbon dioxide, or CO2, showed better cognitive functioning than workers in "non-green" offices with typical pollutant and CO2 levels.  

"These results suggest that even modest improvements to indoor environmental quality may have a profound impact on the decision-making performance of workers," lead study author Joseph Allen, the director of the Healthy Buildings Program at the Harvard Center for Health and the Global Environment, wrote. 

The findings, Think Progress notes, provide "an entirely new public health impetus for keeping global CO2 levels as low as possible." 

The study of 24 people exposed to different indoor environmental quality conditions over six full work days showed that participants' cognitive scores were an average 61 percent higher on days working in buildings with low pollution levels than on days working in a conventional building. The results held true across all cognitive abilities that were tested: basic activity, applied activity, focused activity, task orientation, crisis response, information seeking, information usage, breadth of approach and strategy.

When lowered CO2 levels were coupled with lower pollutants in buildings, cognitive scores were a whopping 101 percent higher than in conventional buildings. That finding was significant, the study noted, as CO2 is not typically thought of as a direct indoor pollutant.

The largest improvements were seen in participants' cognitive abilities relating to strategy, information usage and crisis response.

The study comes months after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that average global levels of carbon dioxide exceeded 400 parts per million outdoors through all of March 2015 -- the first time in NOAA's record-keeping history that such a high level has been sustained for a month. Outdoor CO2 levels, Think Progress notes, set the baseline for indoor levels, which have been found to exceed 3,000 ppm in recent studies. 

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