Associations of cognitive function scores with CO2, ventilation, and VOC exposures in office workers: a controlled exposure study of green and conventional office environments

Posted by Niko Järvinen on Jun 14, 2016

Authors: Allen, J.G., MacNaughton, P., Satish, U., Santanam, S., Vallarino, J. and Spengler, J.D.

Year of publication: 2015

Publication: Environmental Health Perspectives, 124(6), p.805.

Keywords: VOCs, cognitive performance, indoor air pollution, carbon dioxide, decision making, health,

Link to publication

A Harvard University led multidisciplinary team investigated the decision making performance of 24 participants (architects, designers, engineers, managers, programmers) monitored over 6 days in a climatically controlled office environment. Utilising a double-blind study, the researchers studied the impact of ventilation, chemicals, and carbon dioxide on workers’ cognitive function in representative ‘non-green’ vs. ‘green’ buildings.

Comparison between typical ‘non-green’ and ‘green’ office workspace was undertaken by exposing the participants to elevated levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and carbon dioxide (CO2). Testing was then conducted to investigate any impairment of cognitive performance.

The findings indicate that overall those participants from the ‘non green’ workspace conditions performed at a significantly lower (<50%) cognitive level that those participants from the ‘green’ and ‘green+’ conditions.

Investigating further the impact of VOCs, CO2 levels and ventilation rates in the ‘green’ and ‘green+’ workspace conditions, the researchers found significant performance improvements in the participants’ higher cognitive functions, related to:

  • Crisis response (97% ‘green’ and 131% ‘green+’)
  • Strategic solutions (183% ‘green’ and 288% ‘green+’)
  • Information usage (172% ‘green’ and 299% ‘green+’)

Cognitive scores were 61–101 % higher in green buildings compared to conventional building (p < 0.0001). VOCs and CO2 were independently associated with cognitive scores. In conclusion, the researchers comment that even a modest improvement in indoor air quality could have a dramatic improvement on workers decision making and overall cognitive performance.


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