The pandemic has illuminated the importance of healthy indoor air quality, and new research shows just how dire bad air quality can be for cognitive function.
A recently released study surveyed office workers around the world in 30 different cities and showed that bad air quality outside impacts cognitive function, as well as bad air quality indoors. Air filtration systems in buildings make it so that even low levels of air particles linked to bad air quality can make it difficult to perform simple and complex cognitive functions.
This is particularly alarming for Californians and others living on the West Coast dealing with increased levels of wildfire smoke in the air in recent weeks.
"We need to do better with our buildings," said Dr. Joseph Allen, Director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard and Associate Professor of Exposure Assessment of Science, and senior author on the study on Friday’s Ask an Expert with Holly Quan and Eric Thomas. "Specifically, increasing the amount of ventilation and increasing the amount of filtration, that helps prevent the transmission of these respiratory aerosols."
Higher ventilation rates were related to improved cognitive function, according to the study. "The big takeaway here is the exact same strategy we’re using to protect against COVID-19," said Allen. "Also provides multiple benefits."
With more schools, offices, and other large spaces looking to reopen and stay open despite surges of the delta variant, more people are looking into air filtration and ventilation systems. But these strategies shouldn’t be considered just short-term for the pandemic, Allen said, since the other benefits are now so clear.
For some buildings, it’s not always possible to open up windows and use natural ventilation. Whether it’s because of air pollution like in California or because of the building’s design, like in high-rises, other strategies are necessary to adopt.
"Every building can be a healthy building," said Allen. If a building is older and the system can’t be updated, portable ventilation systems are very effective in helping filter particles out of the air in any space.
They should be used in each room, or unit, in the office space. The only time they might not be as effective would be in a space with very high ceilings, which would already dilute any potential particles in the air anyways.