How poor indoor air quality can affect your brain
Is the air in your workplace healthy?
This is a question that many of us are now asking to protect ourselves from Covid-19. But indoor air quality is also something we should be talking about long after the pandemic is over. Because not only the quality of the air in your workplace can influence the number of sick days you take every year, but it can even affect how your brain works in the office.
New study shows that poor indoor air quality is associated with subtle impairments in a number of cognitive functions, including our ability to focus and process information. The study followed 302 office workers in commercial buildings in six countries – the United States, Britain, China, India, Mexico and Thailand – for 12 months.
Scientists used monitors to measure ventilation and indoor air quality in buildings, including levels of fine particles, including dust and tiny particles from smoking, cleaning products and pollution from the outside air that infiltrates the building. Workers were instructed to use an app to perform regular cognitive tests during the working day. The tests included simple math problems, as well as a tricky puzzle with colors and words called the Stroop Test, in which a word like “blue” or “purple” is printed in green or red ink. (The test asks you to name the color of the ink, but our brains want to read the word instead. You can try the Stroop test yourself here.)
The study found that office workers in buildings with the worst indoor air quality tended to perform worse on puzzles. While the effect was not dramatic, the findings add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that the air we breathe affects brain health.
“This study examined how several factors in the indoor environment have an immediate impact on our cognitive function and our performance,” said Joseph G. Allen, director of the Harvard Healthy Buildings program and lead author of the study. “This study shows that the air you breathe at your desk at this time has an impact on the way you think.”
In the past, air quality control in buildings focused primarily on energy efficiency and comfort, with little regard for infection control or the overall health of workers. But the pandemic has prompted many workplaces to take a closer look at indoor air quality. The good news is that many of the changes made to prevent the spread of Covid-19 are the same improvements that need to be made to improve overall air quality related to cognitive function and worker productivity.
âThere is a new appreciation for the influence of the indoor environment on our health,â said Dr. Allen. âHealthy buildings,â he said, shouldn’t just be seen as âsomething we do during Covid or a crisis. It must be the new normal, not the exception, going forward. “
Is your building doing everything it takes to ensure your safety? This week, I spoke to some of the world’s foremost air quality experts about the 6 questions to ask about Covid and workplace air quality.
In general, you want to know that your building has upgraded its ventilation filters to at least a MERV 11 but preferably a MERV 13, which is an indicator of filtration efficiency. You also want to know if building managers have taken steps to increase the outside air or added portable air purifiers to the space. Beware if someone tells you that the building’s ventilation system cannot be improved or that it uses new, unproven technology.
Dr Allen notes that even adding a portable air purifier with a HEPA filter in the center of the room can make a significant difference in offices with less efficient ventilation systems. The key to choosing an air purifier is choosing the right device for the size of the room. Dr. Allen advises that for a typical workspace, choose an air purifier with a clean airflow, or CADR, of 300 for every 500 square feet of floor space – which equates to roughly the equivalent of change the air in the room every 15 minutes. Wirecutter, the Times-owned product review site, has a helpful review of portable air purifiers.
Dr. Allen is the co-author of a new book, “Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Boost Performance and Productivity.He said he was encouraged to see more businesses and individuals taking indoor air quality more seriously in the wake of the pandemic. Recently, he saw a job posting at a large company promoting a âhealthy buildings managerâ in the company’s global real estate division.
“This tells you that serious businesses are changing the way they approach their buildings, and they don’t think of it as one-off during Covid,” Dr Allen said.
While some technical details about air quality can be confusing, don’t be intimidated. You don’t need to be a ventilation expert to determine if the precautions your employer has taken are adequate to keep you safe during the pandemic and into the future.
âThe pressure is coming from employees, parents of children in school, teachers – there is an increased level of awareness and expertise,â Dr Allen said. âHow many people were talking about MERV 13 filters before the pandemic? This knowledge that our interior spaces have been underperforming is not going to go away. I think people are rightly frustrated and fed up. “
Learn how to talk about indoor air quality:
6 questions to ask about the Covid and air quality at work
Staying Safe in a Car During a Flash Flood
Instant food warnings are becoming more common, even in areas that have never experienced severe flooding before. Flash floods can develop quickly, in hours or even minutes, which means we all need to be prepared for them. I was especially interested to read this week on how to stay safe in your car during flash floods.
Almost half of all flash flood deaths are vehicle-related, so you should never ignore barriers or attempt to cross flooded areas. Only 12 inches of water can float your car and 18 inch can take your SUV or van.
That said, if your car is washed away by flood water, roll down your windows first, said Lynn Burttschell, lifeguard, lifeguard swimmer and founder of Rescue training at Wimberley. If they don’t budge, he recommended breaking the glass with an evacuation tool (like the one in this Wirecutter guide, which you can store in your glove box) or using the metal pole of your headrest like a ram. Opening the windows is important, said Mr Burttschell, because “if the water keeps rising, then this car fills up and becomes more of a boulder than a float floating downstream.”
Then unbuckle your seat belt and grab it as you climb onto the roof and call 911, Mr Burttschell advised. Do your best to stay with the car until help arrives. Lie down on the roof to stay stable and do not get attached to the car, in case it rolls.
During his 32-year career, Mr. Burttschell has found that people who stay with their cars survive at much higher rates than those who abandon them, simply because it is easier for emergency services to spot a vehicle than a person. âI really never recommend leaving the vehicle,â he said. To get noticed, you can also turn on your hazard lights, activate your car alarm with your remote control and, if possible, honk your horn.
Learn more about flash floods:
How to stay safe during a flash flood
How to clean everything
I really like the Wirecutter âClean Everythingâ series. You will learn how to clean your cast iron stove, laptop, and bed pillows, among other things. You can also subscribe to the Clean Everything newsletter.
How to clean your glasses
The week at the well
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