People who work in “green” offices have double the brainpower of those who don’t, according to a new study out of the US.

Researchers from the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, SUNY Upstate Medical University and Syracuse University undertook a study last year to evaluate the impact of poor ventilation in offices on cognitive function.

According to the findings of the study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives this week, people who work in well-ventilated offices with below-average levels of indoor pollutants and carbon dioxide have “significantly higher” cognitive functioning scores than those who work in offices with typical levels.

CO2 levels affect cognitive function

The conclusion comes after 24 participants – including architects, designers, programmers, engineers, creative marketing professionals, and managers – were asked to work in different office environments at the Total Indoor Environmental Quality Laboratory in the Syracuse Center of Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems.

Over six days in November 2014, the participants (who were blinded to test conditions to avoid biased results) worked in various simulated building conditions: conventional conditions with relatively high concentrations of volatile organic compounds – such as those emitted from common materials in offices; conditions with low VOC concentrations (dubbed “green”); “green” conditions with enhanced ventilation (dubbed “green+”); and conditions with artificially elevated levels of CO2, independent of ventilation.

They were then asked to perform a series of cognitive tests.

According to the study, those who had worked in environments with enhanced ventilation (“green+”) scored, on average, double that of those who worked in conventional office environments. Further, the researchers found that those working in “green” environments were 61 per cent higher.

Measuring nine cognitive functions, the researchers found that the largest improvements occurred in the areas of: crisis response (97 per cent higher scores in “green” conditions and 131 per cent higher in “green+”); strategy (183 per cent and 288 per cent higher, respectively); and information usage (172 per cent and 299 per cent higher, respectively).

The study also revealed that average scores for seven of the nine cognitive functions tested decreased as CO2 levels increased to levels “commonly observed in many indoor environments”.

As such, the scientists concluded that common indoor environments, such as offices, could be adversely affecting cognitive function, and that improving air quality could greatly increase the cognitive function performance of workers.

Lead author of the study, Joseph Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science and director of the Healthy Buildings Program at the Harvard Center for Health and the Global Environment, said: “We spend 90 per cent of our time indoors and 90 per cent of the cost of a building are the occupants, yet indoor environmental quality and its impact on health and productivity are often an afterthought.

“These results suggest that even modest improvements to indoor environmental quality may have a profound impact on the decision-making performance of workers.”

The full study is available on Environmental Health Perspectives.

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