Many people pay little attention to the air, light and other elements around them when they are working in an office or are at home. Scientists increasingly are taking a critical look at such indoor environmental factors, which they say can affect our personal health and work performance. Specially outfitted buildings are being turned into laboratories to determine optimum air-ventilation rates, room temperatures, types of sounds and other features, and even whether these should change during the year.
A study published online Monday in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that doubling the normal rate of air ventilation in a research building at Syracuse University in New York led to sharply higher scores by employees on a series of cognitive performance tests. At Washington University in St. Louis, researchers this summer began a yearlong experiment to test if a newly constructed building, designed with easy access to stairways, lots of natural light and other health-minded features, will boost employees’ physical activity and lead to greater collaboration.
Clinical trials are due to get underway early next year at the Well Living Lab, a new, 7,500-square-foot research facility adjacent to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., designed to study indoor environments with the aim of creating healthier spaces. Sensors throughout the building monitor factors ranging from noise levels to air quality and temperature; other sensors in furniture will tell how long people stay seated and their posture. “The ultimate goal is to improve health,” said Brent Bauer, medical director of the Well Living Lab and professor of medicine for the Mayo Clinic Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program. “If we spend 90% of our time in an indoor environment there are almost endless opportunities to find better ways to do what we’re doing inside the building,” he said.
In the Environmental Health Perspectives study, 24 professionals were relocated for six workdays to the floor of a building where air quality could be manipulated from the machine room directly below. On different days, the researchers changed the air-ventilation rates and levels of carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which are emitted by products such as adhesives and cleaning fluids, said Joe Allen, assistant professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and lead author of the study. After each workday, study participants were tested on nine cognitive functions while responding to simulated scenarios, such as acting as an emergency coordinator for a town. Functions tested included how people responded to crises and plotting strategies. The best average test scores by far were on days when the amount of outdoor air entering the office space was about double the standard ventilation rate and when levels of VOCs were at their lowest, said Dr. Allen.
For U.S. commercial buildings, the minimum ventilation rate for acceptable air quality is 20 cubic feet per minute, according to the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning, a professional organization. High VOC concentrations have been associated with upper respiratory symptoms and eye irritation, among other health issues, experts say. And semi-volatile compounds, such as flame-retardant chemicals found in many couches and carpets, have been found to act as hormone disrupters, Dr. Allen said. Hormone disruption can cause developmental problems and other health issues. “When we improve outdoor ventilation we’re decreasing the airborne concentration of these volatile and semi-volatile compounds, along with lowering carbon dioxide,” said Dr. Allen.