Evidence Suggests Indoor Air May Affect Ability to Think Clearly

rooms high in carbon dioxide effect problem-solving skills

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Sitting in small, enclosed rooms while low levels of carbon dioxide accumulate could actually be detrimental to the health of your brain, The New York Times reported. Both the increased heat build up and the chemical composition of the air we inhale may affect our decision-making and critical-thinking skills.

Indoor Air Pollution

According to the article in the Times, “Inhalation of carbon dioxide at much higher levels than you’d ever expect to see in a workplace has been found by biomedical researchers to dilate blood vessels in the brain, reduce neuronal activity, and decrease the amount of communication between brain regions.” It may be worth taking a look at the level of carbon dioxide build-up in conference rooms during prolonged meetings with doors closed. Concerns over the side effects of long-term exposure to this type of stagnant air invite another look at what carbon dioxide is and does.

Tracking Carbon Dioxide

In the last several decades, much ado has been made about carbon dioxide emissions, global warming, climate change, the greenhouse effect, and more. It can be hard to keep up, but by looking at the science behind these issues, we can form an educated opinion about them.

“Carbon dioxide is […] one of the main products of combustion, and the use of fossil fuels since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution has caused an increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” Dr. David W. Ball, Professor of Chemistry at Cleveland State University, said. Dr. Ball explained that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is measured in parts per million, or ppm. “Historically—and by that, I mean over the last few hundred thousand years—the carbon dioxide concentration in our atmosphere ranged from 200 to 300 ppm. How do we know this? Among other ways, we can sample tiny bubbles of air trapped in thick ice sheets in the polar regions of our planet. The farther down you go in the ice, the further back in history these air bubbles were trapped.”

In a sense, this measurement is similar to examining the undisturbed geological strata that cover the surface of the Earth or perusing the rings of a tree to understand various phenomena the tree has encountered in its lifespan. A measurement tool in Mauna Loa in Hawaii has been monitoring carbon dioxide since the 1950s and it has found that its concentration has risen from 300 to 400 ppm just in that time. Finally, the number of neutrons in carbon isotopes tells us where our carbon dioxide comes from, and all signs point to the burning of fossil fuels.

From Greenhouse Effect to Conference Room Effect

Carbon dioxide is one of several “greenhouse gases” in the atmosphere. “A greenhouse gas is a gas that absorbs and emits infrared radiation, which we perceive as heat and which contributes to warming our planet,” Dr. Ball said, referring to the greenhouse effect. Dr. Ball added, “Water vapor, methane, and ozone also absorb and emit infrared radiation—however, carbon dioxide is the only gas whose concentration has increased by one-third over the last 150 years.”

When the global greenhouse effect is reduced to the small scale of a enclosed conference room, we still can measure increased levels of carbon dioxide and how human functioning is effected. The study that was examined in the Times article cites an experiment that tested subjects’ productivity and problem-solving skills in indoor environments with various carbon dioxide levels. “The higher the carbon dioxide, the worse the test-takers did,” the article said. “At 2,500 ppm, their scores were generally much worse than at 1,000 ppm.” Research studies continue to test the effects on office workers of increased carbon dioxide levels within office environments and the types of ventilation systems in use.

As the level of carbon dioxide for indoor air is under debate as to what level is most harmful for cognitive functioning, studies of carbon dioxide-rich environments continue to implicate carbon dioxide as detrimental to our cognitive abilities. If this is the case, stepping outside a musty office building for several deep breaths of fresh air could be more beneficial than we think.

Dr. Ball is a Professor of Chemistry at Cleveland State University in Ohio.

Dr. David W. Ball contributed to this article. Dr. Ball is a Professor of Chemistry at Cleveland State University in Ohio. He received his bachelor’s degree from Baylor University and his master’s and doctoral degrees from Rice University.