New study shows that office air pollution negatively impacts productivity

13 Sep 2021

Office air quality may affect employees’ cognitive productivity, according to a new study published by Harvard Chan School of Public Health. 

The research team enrolled more than 300 office workers in cities across China, India, Mexico, Thailand, the UK and the US. All participants worked at least three days a week in an office building and each participant’s workspace was fitted with an environmental sensor that monitored real-time concentrations of particulate matter (PM2.5) and CO2. 

Study participants were prompted to participate in tests and surveys at prescheduled times. One test required employees to correctly identify the colour of displayed words and was used to evaluate cognitive speed and inhibitory control. The second test consisted of basic arithmetic questions and was used to assess cognitive speed and working memory. 

The researchers found that response times on the colour-based test were slower as PM2.5 and CO2 levels increased. 

They also found that the accuracy of the colour-based test was affected by pollution levels. For the arithmetic-based test, the study found that increases in CO2 but not PM2.5 were associated with slower response times. 

The researchers noted that they observed impaired cognitive function at concentrations of PM2.5 and CO2 that are common in indoor environments. 

Jose Guillermo Cedeño Laurent, a research fellow in the Department of Environmental Health and lead author of the study said: ‘Our study adds to the emerging evidence that air pollution has an impact on our brain. 

‘The findings show that increases in PM2.5 levels were associated with acute reductions in cognitive function. It’s the first time we’ve seen these short-term effects among younger adults. 

‘The study also confirmed how low ventilation rates negatively impact cognitive function. Overall, the study suggests that poor indoor air quality affects health and productivity significantly more than we previously understood.’ 

Joseph Allen, associate professor and senior author added: ‘The world is rightly focused on Covid-19, and strategies like better ventilation and filtration are key to slowing infectious disease transmission indoors. Our research consistently finds that the value proposition of these strategies extends to cognitive function and productivity of workers, making healthy buildings foundational to public health and business strategy moving forward.’

As published in Air Quality News