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Office Indoor Air Quality

co2 productivity and office air quality

The quality of indoor air inside offices, schools, and other workplaces is important not only for workers' comfort but also for their health. Studies show a direct correlation between high concentrations of carbon dioxide, employee productivity and health in office settings. While many of us work in poor indoor air quality, few understand the problems and direct negative impact it can have on our well-being.

From reduced cognitive skills, decision-making functions, respiratory ailments, absenteeism, and higher levels of sickness - these all have been linked to high concentrations of CO2 in the office.

What pollutants affect Indoor Air Quality in the office?

Indoor pollutants in the office generally fall into one of three groups: biological and chemical pollutants, particulate matter, and poor air.

  • Biological and chemical pollutants like mold, bacteria and dust mites, water-based lead as well as volatile organic compounds like formaldehyde, solvents, and cleaning agents.
  • Particulate matter like dust, dander, pollen, asbestos, lead dust, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides or any fine particulate matter 2.5 microns or smaller. In general, any inhalable particulate matter 10 microns or smaller can have a long-term impact on health.
  • Lack of fresh air. Poor air can be the result of high levels of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, or radon in the air.

The Environmental Protection Agency has a great reference guide that describes each of these in more detail.

Does OSHA limit indoor air quality in the office?

OSHA does not have a general IAQ standard, but does provide guidelines addressing the most common workplace complaints about IAQ, which are typically related to temperature, humidity, lack of outside air ventilation, or smoking. You can find more information on OSHA indoor air quality guidelines, here.
Indoor air quality (IAQ) standards are most based off guidelines created by the CDC, ASHRAE and the U.S. Green Building Council for maintaining clean air in buildings. While there is no definitive list of standards kept on record, various journals kept by these publications provide clear recommendations for improving indoor air quality.
For further resources on indoor air quality, standards and best practices visit our CO2Meter.com blog, here.

What are the symptoms of poor air quality in the office?

Published research studies have also demonstrated the health effects of high indoor CO2 concentrations, specifically in productivity. However, the increasing cost of energy in the 1970s led to a change in building practices throughout the United States as buildings were increasingly constructed to be airtight and energy efficient.

While recent changes in codes for new office buildings have resulted in increased fresh air flow per office worker, older office buildings continue to have an impact on overall worker health and productivity.

Sick Building Syndrome

Sick building Syndrome is also used as an indicator to describe office buildings where people seem to always be sick for no apparent reason. Symptoms are positively correlated with the time spent indoors. Occupants tend to get sick the longer they are in a building, whereas their symptoms improve or disappear when they leave.

Poor indoor air quality in office buildings may often mask itself as a cold or the flu. Runny nose, sore throat, sneezing, headache, fatigue, fever, chills, or nausea can all be signs of problems with IAQ.

In order to test the quality of air in your office building, a professional air quality monitor should be used, such as the EPA provides an on-line guide for HVAC personnel to develop an IAQ profile or to investigate an IAQ complaint.

What are the effects of poor indoor air quality in the office?

study by a team of Harvard researchers measured a 15 percent decline of cognitive ability scores at 950 ppm and 50 percent decline at 1,400 ppm. Joseph Allen, a Harvard School of Public Health professor stated that his team received multiple inquiries from officials at the Navy and NASA following the study as they became concerned about their crews’ environments after hearing of the research findings.

In understanding the findings from the Harvard study, one can view the demonstrated negative impact that high levels of CO2 can have on ones level of concentration.

Do high levels of carbon dioxide impair decision-making performance According to researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the answer appear to be that it does.

A paper titled "Is CO2 an Indoor Pollutant? Higher Levels of CO2 May Diminish Decision Making Performance" documented the results of research on a group of test-takers subjected to different levels of carbon dioxide in an enclosed chamber. The research found that the increasing CO2 levels alone, without any other variables, had a direct impact on the results of tests designed to quantify decision making performance.

In their conclusion, they write:

"The dramatic direct influence of CO2 on decision making performance was unexpected and the study needs to be replicated. The findings of this study, if replicated, have implications for the standards that specify minimum ventilation rates in buildings, and indicate the need to adhere more consistently to the existing standards."

Read the entire paper here.

Building occupants and facility managers consistently rank poor indoor air quality as one of the top 10 complaints of building occupants.

See the IFMA Survey on Top 10 Office Complaints.

According to another study conducted by researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the cognitive impairment due to poor indoor air quality is clear. 

Research by Lawrence Berkeley Labs (LBL) found that “Moderately high indoor concentrations of carbon dioxide CO2 can significantly impair people’s decision-making performance. The results were unexpected and may have particular implications for schools and other spaces with high occupant density."

The best cognitive scores occurred at 600ppm CO2, and as LBL noted, "In classrooms and office spaces, concentrations frequently exceeded 1,000 ppm and occasionally exceeded 3,000 ppm."

Despite the uncertainty about which concentration of ambient CO2 levels will be at their peak, the overall research on increased carbon dioxide levels in correlation to an individual’s cognitive influence and productivity levels, is a topic that can not be disregarded or ignored.

In a paper published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, researchers found that "On average, cognitive scores were 61% higher on the Green building day and 101% higher on the two Green+ building days than on the Conventional building day (p < 0.0001). VOCs and CO2 were independently associated with cognitive scores."

People working in buildings with below-average indoor air pollution and carbon dioxide showed better cognitive functioning than workers in offices with typical VOC and CO2 levels.

How can I Improve the air quality in my office indoors?

Would you want to undercut your ability to think at the fullest potential? Clearly, the Navy and NASA are concerned about the operational performance of their crews. Are you any less concerned about your employees, your students or your own health?

Knowing and controlling the PPM (parts per million) of CO2 in your space has become increasingly simpler and more cost effective in the last decade with the creation of smaller and more cost-effective CO2 monitors and data loggers – specifically for Indoor Air Quality.

There are also additional best practice tips to improve the indoor air in your office such as:

  1. Remove blocking of air vents or grilles
  2. Comply with office and building smoke policies
  3. Water and maintain office plants properly
  4. Implement indoor air quality monitors
  5. Dispose of garbage promptly and properly

Here are some other low-cost or short term solutions from the EPA:

  • Do not block air vents or grilles.
  • Comply with the office and building smoking policy.
  • Water and maintain office plants properly.
  • Dispose of garbage promptly and properly.
  • Store food properly.
  • Avoid bringing products into the building that could release harmful or bothersome odors or contaminants.

Notify your building or facility manager immediately if you suspect an indoor air quality problem. 

What is acceptable indoor air quality?

Acceptable indoor air quality (IAQ) is defined by specific guidelines and standards established by health and environmental organizations. Different countries and organizations may have slightly varying standards, but they generally cover key parameters that impact indoor air quality. 

The most common indoor air quality standard is from The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) that recommends carbon dioxide levels not exceed 700ppm.  However, many other standards state that good indoor CO2 levels should fall between 700ppm-1,000ppm for general comfort. Higher levels may indicate inadequate ventilation. above outdoor ambient levels.

Here are some other indicators for indoor air quality and their acceptable levels:

  1. Particulate Matter (PM):

    • PM2.5 (Fine Particles): Typically, the acceptable annual average concentration is around 10 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m³) according to guidelines from organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO).
    • PM10 (Coarse Particles): The acceptable annual average concentration is generally around 20 µg/m³.
  2. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs):

    • Total VOCs: There is no specific standard for total VOCs, as different VOCs have different health effects. However, guidelines often provide acceptable levels for individual VOCs. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends keeping formaldehyde levels below 0.1 ppm.
  3. Carbon Monoxide (CO):

    • The acceptable level of carbon monoxide is typically set at 9 parts per million (ppm) for an 8-hour exposure, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in the United States.
  4. Ozone (O3):

    • Indoor ozone levels are typically expected to be below 0.05 parts per million (ppm) for human health.
  5. Relative Humidity:

    • Maintaining indoor relative humidity levels between 30% and 50% is generally considered acceptable. This helps prevent mold growth and dust mites.
  6. Radon:

    • The acceptable level of radon gas in indoor air is often set at 4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) or lower.

It's important to note that these are general guidelines, and specific standards may vary. Additionally, individual sensitivities to pollutants can differ, meaning that some people may experience health effects even at levels considered acceptable for the general population.

Regular monitoring of indoor air quality, addressing potential sources of pollution, ensuring proper ventilation, and following recommended guidelines can help maintain a healthy indoor environment. If there are specific regulations or guidelines in your region, it's advisable to refer to them for more accurate and detailed information.

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