What is the Link Between Indoor Air Quality and How Smart You Are?
The level of indoor air quality can affect cognition and brain function. People spend 90 percent of their time indoors. How do we change this equation?
For years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has sounded the alarm about the importance of improving indoor air quality, because people spend as much as 90 percent of their lives indoors. And in fact, studies have found that residences and workplaces with high levels of pollutants can worsen asthma conditions, reduce lung function and even lead to serious illnesses such as lung cancer.
Let’s take a look at the link between indoor air quality and cognitive function, and see how improving air quality may not just make us healthier, it may actually make us smarter.
Pollution Affects Cognitive Function
We know that exposure to pollution has a direct and often adverse effect on our health, but recent studies have begun to show that pollution affects cognitive function in human beings.
According to Alternet, a Harvard study found that normal indoor levels of carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) negatively impact human cognitive function and decision-making.
The study analyzed 24 participants who spent six, eight-hour days working in a controlled office environment.
During the study, some of the participants were exposed to high concentrations of VOCs, while others were exposed to low concentrations of VOCs.
At the end of the eight-hour day, the participants were given a 90-minute computerized cognitive assessment that measured their aptitude in nine functions, including crisis response, information usage, strategy and task orientation.
Participants who spent their day in the environment with a low concentration of VOCs scored 61 percent higher than the participants who spent their day in the environment with high concentrations of VOCs.
In addition to finding that carbon dioxide and VOCs negatively affect worker performance, the study also found that when the environment with high VOCs was exposed to increased ventilation, the cognitive function of participants working in that environment improved.
These results are in line with another major study, which found that air pollution affects brain function in primary school children.
Researchers analyzed cognitive function in 2,715 primary school students and found that children in schools with high levels of pollution scored lower on cognitive tests that included working memory, superior working memory, and attentiveness.
Reasons Pollution May Impact Brain Activity
But what are some of the reasons pollution may impact brain activity?
According to Science, the answer may lie in a series of studies conducted by a pair of neuroscientists at the University of Southern California (USC), who exposed mice to dirty air.
The results showed that microscopic pollutants could travel into the cerebellum at the rear of the brain and trigger an inflammatory reaction. (3)
Scientists theorize that this inflammation could interfere with cognitive function, and prolonged exposure could even accelerate mental health illnesses such as Alzheimer’s.
While more research is needed to determine the exact reasons why pollution affects the brain, it’s clear that poor indoor air quality can definitely impact human cognitive ability.
Ways to Improve Indoor Air Quality
Given the dangers of pollution, it is important to find ways to improve indoor air quality. One action that some employers are taking is to convert their offices into green buildings.
The EPA defines the green building as increasing the efficiency with which buildings and their sites use and harvest energy, water and materials…and protecting and restoring human health and the environment through design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation, and deconstruction.
But even at home, you can take steps to ensure that you breathe cleaner air, such as opening your windows to lower carbon dioxide levels and to ensure that fresh air blows in from outdoors.
The type of air filters used in your building to remove contaminants can also have a major effect on the indoor air quality. Air filters are available to remove both particulate and gaseous pollutants.
You should also limit the use of indoor barbecue grills and indoor wood-burning fireplaces, and use a dehumidifier to keep the humidity level below 50 percent because excess moisture creates bacteria and mold.
“We know that indoor air quality is a vital aspect of overall health,” Kevin Wood, Camfil USA Vice President Sales & Marketing. “But the issue is even more urgent now that we understand some of the cognitive problems that arise due to long-term exposure to pollutants. The HVAC systems within a residence or commercial facility are the keys to improving indoor air quality. Proper ventilation can help reduce pollution and installing high-efficiency air filters rated to eliminate 99.97 percent of contaminants, can help protect your long-term health and mental well-being.”