You have heard of some new office buildings promoting themselves as “green” or “environmentally friendly”. A new study from the Harvard School of Public Health shows that workers in these buildings enjoy more than better quality air to breath: they show clearer thinking and better decision-making abilities as well.
The study, published in the October 26 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, looked at the brain performance of 24 workers—architects, engineers, programmers, designers, and managers—in a controlled “Total Indoor Environmental Quality Laboratory” located at Syracuse University (New York).
In this controlled environment, researchers could change the levels of various chemicals and gases that are commonly breathed in normal office environments, such as “volatile organic compounds” (VOCs). These are chemicals emitted by materials found in offices such as carpeting, ceiling tiles, plastic furniture, and paint. The researchers could also change the concentration of carbon dioxide (that we exhale with each breath) levels in the test environment as well.
High levels of VOCs and carbon dioxide as found in many office environments may cause a variety of symptoms, such as headaches, dizziness, eye and skin irritation, fatigue, and memory problems. Some newer buildings are constructed in a way that minimizes use of materials that emit VOCs, and improves the exchange of air between the inside environment and the outside air.
But many existing buildings, and most new constructions that don’t respect good environmental principles, expose the occupants to unnecessarily high levels of VOCs and carbon dioxide. Often the windows are sealed shut, with poor exchange of fresher outside air with the more stale air inside.
In the Harvard study, the researchers studied the brain functioning of the various workers as they changed the levels of VOCs and carbon dioxide in the environment. The results showed that when the workers were in a “green” environment with good exchange of outside air with inside air, that their brain functioning was much better.
Brain function improves in a green environment
While working in a highly “green” environment, the workers enjoyed on average twice the level of mental performance measured on nine different tests of their brain functioning including: response to crises, their ability to use information, and make good strategies.
You can read the technical details of the Harvard study here. But the bottom line of the research is that, while it might initially cost more to construct a work environment that is “green” friendly, the improvement in mental functioning justifies the cost. All of us should be looking to work in environments that are good for our physical and mental health.
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