Why Office Air Is Making You Sick

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Concentrating for long periods of time in a meeting room is hard going; how many of you have felt drowsy and unable to pay attention as the time goes on, reaching for another snack or cup of coffee to keep awake? When you leave the room you take a few deep breaths, or go and stand outside and feel refreshed, like you’ve woken up. There’s a sense that offices are benign places, that nothing bad happens in them, yet this veneer of respectability hides another truth.

Considering we now spend 90% of our time indoors, it’s time we placed more of a focus on the impact on living and working in this artificial environment and realise there’s many things we can do to make meaningful change. We are bathing in unnaturally high carbon dioxide (CO2) levels all day, every day – at home, in the car, in shops, at work and elevated CO2 levels have been shown to reduce cognitive function. Current recommendations for air flow and ventilation aren’t enough and it’s only now we’re beginning to understand the impact physically and mentally.

Buildings have become better sealed in recent years, reducing running costs and energy usage, however this has also caused an increase in indoor air pollution. Aside from the carbon dioxide we exhale, we also have to contend with other indoor air pollutants from off-gassing - the emission of airborne particulates or volatile organic compounds (VOCs) - from the environment around us, including the adhesives used in carpets and furiture, paints, plastics, cleaning products and even air fresheners (ironically). Printers, computers and other elecronic devices are considered ‘active’ sources of VOCs because they emit heat when turned on, which breaks down the materials in the device faster, increasing the rate of off gassing. Computer emissions have been measured and found to be 10 - 120 times higher when turned on than off.

Emissions from VOCs include:

  • Formaldehyde in carpets

  • Polychlorinated biphenyls in electrical transformers

  • High magnetic fields from wiring without proper grounding

  • Ozone and hydrocarbons in photocopiers

  • Toluene in printers

  • Ethylbenzene in chairs

  • Solvents used in cleaners and glues

  • M-xylene, p-xylene, pentadecane and phenol in computers

Ventilation systems need to be regularly maintained to reduce the presence of bacteria because if they do develop, they are the perfect breeding ground to spread airborne bacteria such as pneumonia and legionnaires disease. Humidifier fever - sometimes called Monday Fever - is caused by breathing in water droplets from humidifiers heavily contaminated with microorganisms causing respiratory infections, asthma and extrinsic allergic alveolitis.

It’s all too common that employees aren’t allowed to regulate the temperature of where they work themselves and often have no access to opening windows; offices can end up being too hot in winter and too cold in summer. Being at the mercy of managed systems reduces personal autonomy and increases chronic stress, which leads to a weakened immune system and a higher susceptibility to airborne and surface-born illnesses common in office environments.

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Sick Building Syndrome

Various nonspecific symptoms that occur while in a particular building, usually an office. These can include:

- Throat, eye or nose irritation
- Nausea
- Tiredness
- Dizziness
- Headaches
- Cough
- Skin irritation
- Flu-like symptoms
- Asthma and allergies
- Sensitivity to smell / light
- Difficulty concentrating

Low ventilation is measured by elevated CO2 levels (1200 ppm) and it often comes as a surprise just how quickly CO2 builds up in a room full of people - a CO2 increase of 400ppm has been shown to lead to a 21% decrease in cognitive function.

Ironically, outdoor air quality has been monitored a lot more than indoor air, and studies show that inhaling high levels of carbon dioxide decreases communication between brain regions, dilates blood vessels in the brain and inhibits neuronal activity.

Air conditioning, heating and ventilation flaws have been cited as some of the most likely contributors of sick building syndrome syndrome and manifests in illness, sick leave, decreased productivity and high staff turnover. It’s important that businesses realise that increasing energy efficiency through sealing buildings also means that they need to pay higher attention to the quality of the indoor air otherwise it is a false economy, saving energy at the cost of employee health, which will lead to many lost hours of productivity.

With UK productivity running behind a number of other European countries, we need to reconsider whether our buildings and office culture are contributing to this, as high indoor CO2 levels could mean we’re only able to function at 80% of our capacity. Environmentally induced illness will become an accepted major occupational hazard, so it’s worth considering now what changes can be made to prevent issues before they arise.

If you’re a forward thinking company looking to future-proof yourself from the diseases of modernity then get in contact.

- B