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SCIENCE MAGAZINE SAYS there’s a “lasting positive from the pandemic,” namely, awareness of the importance of indoor air quality. Studies have identified that fine aerosols, those smaller than five micrometers, are the primary means of Covid transmission. What’s more, concentration of these aerosols is one of many sources affecting not only human health, but human cognition and productivity.

Douglas Starr’s “The Air Investigator,” Science, August 6, 2021, describes the findings of Joseph Allen, Harvard University public health researcher. Today’s tidbits gleaned from this article touch on indoor environments, human responses, and evolving priorities of building design.

Sealed For Our Safety? “Ever since the energy shocks of the 1970s,” Starr says, “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.”

An awareness of these hazards led to “Green” buildings of the 1990s. Starr continues, “… 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.” 

Working in “Sick Buildings.” Joseph Allen’s Harvard research addressed indoor environmental effects on people’s cognitive abilities. In one study, 24 white-collar volunteers spent six working days in environmentally controlled offices. “On various days,” Starr writes, “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.” 

Starr continues, “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%.”

Next, Allen and his colleagues recruited 109 volunteers from ten office buildings across the U.S. Six of the venues had been renovated with enhanced heat and humidity control, improved ventilation, and less toxic materials; the other four had not been updated. 

The Volunteers wore Fitbit-like bracelets monitoring their well-being, completed daily surveys, and took cognitive tests at the end of the week. 

Starr reports, “Workers in the buildings with good ventilation and lower levels of indoor pollution scored 26.4% higher than those in the unimproved buildings. They also reported sleeping better and experiencing fewer ‘sick building’ symptoms.”

That is, Starr writes, “… a tiny sacrifice in energy efficiency through improved ventilation could increase a business’s bottom line by as much as 10% by decreasing absenteeism and boosting worker productivity.’’

John Macomber, a Harvard Business School lecturer, summed it up, “I realized we’ve been missing the boat. We’re chasing pennies on energy when there’s thousands of dollars in productivity issues.”

An Informative Graphic. Starr’s article is summarized in a fine graphic.

Image by C. Bickel/Science.

Several of its points: Outside air is often the best way to ensure indoor air quality. If fresh outside air is limited, high-quality filtration can be employed. Starr cites researchers recommending “a room exchange rate of four to six times an hour, more than double the rate in a typical office or school building.” 

Rugs, upholstery, paints and cleaning materials can be selected to avoid “off-gassing” of VOCs.

Humans, of course, exhibit their own off-gassing as well, in every CO2 exhalation. Again, adequate ventilation and recirculation can mitigate drowsiness and impaired cognition.

Don’t forget the beneficial inclusion of CO2-exchanging plants either. 

Healthy buildings can be a win-win concept. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021  


  1. Mike B
    August 20, 2021

    As we note during the current fires and smoke issues, outside air isn’t always great. And in large office buildings it’s almost impossible to have windows, let alone windows that open, other than in the executive suites. So … nice article, but more information needed about how to add adequately filtered (and controllable, for times when you just have to live on what’s inside) outside air, adequately filter recirculated air, things like concentrated plantings to help with interior air quality (more than just scattered potted plants is needed), and otherwise supplement the interior air quality. And as the article noted, this is likely to reduce the building’s energy efficiency – but what is a likely or appropriate value of “slightly?”

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