How air quality affects our cognitive performance

How air quality affects our cognitive performance

Our grasp of the relationship between our health and air quality has evolved significantly in the last decade. Both indoors and out, we have grown to understand that toxins in the air we breathe have a substantial impact on our well-being. Considering the rapid increase in carbon emissions and the subsequent threat of climate change, there is an acute awareness that air quality is integral to our health.

As a society, we’re also spending more time indoors than ever. Our lives are largely conducted in workspaces and public buildings, so indoor air quality is of equal concern – especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic, where the jury remains out as to whether or not the virus is airborne.

In the past, indoor air quality studies focussed more on comfort factors, such as temperature and humidity. Now, there is a more holistic approach that assesses contaminants such as carbon dioxide and cleanliness. It’s been found that these factors are not only detrimental to our physical wellbeing, but also our cognitive performance.

The effect of CO2 on our brains

Recently, convincing research has emerged that carbon dioxide can damage our productivity. A Harvard University study found that adults’ cognitive performance – which they tested according to activity level and information processing – dropped noticeably in rooms with higher CO2 levels. In contrast, cognitive scores were 61% higher in well-ventilated rooms and jumped to 101% in so-called very well ventilated ‘Green+’ environments.

This isn’t only an issue for adults in offices. In early 2020, The Danish Technical University conducted a study in schools that suggested that combined with the right light and acoustics, effective mechanical ventilation systems accounted for a 10% improvement of the cognitive performance of pupils. One school principal commented that the results were remarkable. He said: “It’s hard to put your finger on, exactly what it does. There is just an incredibly comfortable atmosphere.”

The case for mechanical ventilation

But why not just open a few windows? According to researchers at the University of Surrey, mechanical air filtration systems play a key role in controlling air quality. In a study that compared traditionally and mechanically ventilated classrooms, the results found that the air quality in the mechanically ventilated space was far superior, creating a safer and more invigorating learning environment.

Certainly, studies such as those mentioned here provide a strong case for better ventilation in workplaces, schools and other public buildings. Further to this, it seems that mechanical ventilation systems demonstrate the most significant benefits. Safeguarding our health and wellbeing is vitally important, and with the added bonus of greater cognitive performance, it feels like a no-brainer. Investing in next-generation mechanical ventilation keeps workforces safe and well and could represent a significant return on investment when it comes to productivity.