This Scientist Says Cleaning Indoor Air Could Make Us Healthier—And Smarter
August 12, 2021
Joseph Allen runs a major public health research project at Harvard University, probing how indoor air quality affects human health and cognition. He consults with companies on ventilation and air filtration, and during the pandemic he became a prominent voice on public health, writing dozens of op-eds criticizing early guidance from health authorities and debunking misconceptions about how the virus spreads.
Ever since the energy shocks of the 1970s, buildings in the United States have been made as airtight and energy-efficient as possible. The result was a buildup of toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and exhaled CO2. “Green building standards” introduced in the late ’90s focused on reducing toxic materials and making buildings healthier as well as more sustainable, but they didn’t prioritize indoor air quality and ultimately did little to improve it.
In a multiyear series of experiments, Allen and his team have investigated the consequences. In the first study, published in 2015, they had 24 white-collar volunteers spend six working days in environmentally controlled office spaces at Syracuse University’s Total Indoor Environmental Quality Laboratory. On various days the experimenters would alter ventilation rates and levels of CO2 and VOCs. Each afternoon the volunteers were tested on their ability to think analytically and react to a crisis. (One test, for example put the volunteer in the role of a small-town mayor trying to react to an emergency.) All tests were double-blind: Neither the volunteers nor the study personnel knew that day’s environmental conditions. The results were dramatic. When volunteers worked in well-ventilated conditions (which lowered the levels of CO2 and VOCs), they scored 61% higher than when they worked in typical office building conditions. When they worked in the cleanest conditions, with even lower CO2 levels and higher ventilation rates, their scores climbed 101%.
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