CO2 Affects our Thinking
Did you know that elevated levels of carbon dioxide or CO2 can play havoc with our cognitive ability? In today’s world it becomes all the more alarming because we spend 90% of our time indoors; in rooms with poor air quality and ventilation. Until a few years ago it was common knowledge that carbon monoxide and other VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) caused problems like asthma. CO2 was ignored and was not considered a gas that could be harmful. Yet many types of research conclude otherwise.
With changing lifestyle we tend to spend 90% of our time indoors. Hence it is more important than before to make sure that the indoor air quality is healthy and CO2 levels are maintained at no more than 600ppm. Studies have shown that there are several times in a day when the CO2 in a room spikes to 1000ppm and more. This is indeed an unhealthy level of carbon dioxide and a cause for concern.
A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives (https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/wp-content/uploads/advpub/2015/10/ehp.1510037.acco.pdf) found modest changes in the indoor air quality to have a major impact on a person’s decision making ability. In this study, 24 individuals in varied professions were asked to remain in a controlled environment, from 9 am to 5pm for 6 full working days. The total study time period was for 2 weeks.
The participants were split into two groups of 12 each and kept in two adjacent rooms. Each room had the same furniture, laptops, cubicles and other office equipment. This was to ensure that other factors did not contribute to the results of the study. One room was labeled green and had good ventilation, while the other had elevated levels of CO2, not above the permissible limits, but what is normally present indoors. Analysts of the study were blinded to the test conditions when they analyzed the data so, that they were no chance of bias in the results.
Participants were tested on their cognitive abilities each day at about 3 pm. They were given real life situations (an example of a situation: if you were to be the mayor of the town what changes would you bring to your town) and the answers were later analyzed using software. The nine parameters that the participants were tested were:
• The ability to make decisions at any given time
• The capability to make decisions that achieved the desired goal
• The capacity to pay attention to surroundings
• The capability of completing given tasks
• The capacity to respond to an emergency
• The ability to gather information
• The ability to use the gathered information for the given goals
• The capacity to make decisions using a variety of options along with multiple dimensions
• The capacity of complex thinking
The results of the study were amazing. Participants who worked in the elevated CO2 levels were found to have significant difficulty with their decision making abilities and thinking capabilities. The cognitive scores of participants in the Green building were 61% higher than the participants in the conventional buildings and the participants in the Green + building had cognitive skills as high as 101%.
So what is the reason behind the impairments of the cognitive ability? According to medical research increased level of CO2 in the blood decreases the cerebral metabolism of oxygen. In simple words, the brain becomes oxygen deprived and has an impact on our thinking abilities. It is a well documented fact of what high levels of carbon dioxide can do to the brain. Space travel, scuba diving, fire fighting, airplanes and submarines are examples where high carbon dioxide levels have lead to fatalities.
Carbon dioxide dissolves in our blood and reacts with the water in our blood to create carbonic acid. This, in turn, dissolves into ions of hydrogen and bicarbonate. If there is an increase in the concentration of hydrogen ions in our blood the blood acidity level increases and creates electrolyte imbalance, causing increased discomfort and decline in intellectual performance. If you feel tired after just a couple of hours of work (when you have had a restful night), feel sleepy at work and cannot focus on presentations, it could mean that the indoor air quality needs to be inspected for CO2.
People can argue that they spend at least an hour outdoors every day but, does that help? With our current lifestyle, most of us spend 90% of our time awake indoors in addition to the time we sleep. Whether it’s your home or office the quality of the air circulating within could be poor with concentrated amounts of carbon dioxide. So, irrespective of the number of hours you spend outdoors, if the air quality indoors isn’t healthy you end up feeling sick.
How can the indoor air quality be improved? Improving the indoor air quality is important and here are a few easy and effective ways to improve your indoor air quality and reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide.
• Make sure your home or office has a periodic supply of fresh air. Opening windows for a few minutes two or three times a day can improve the air quality to a large extent
• Keeping a few indoor plants that release oxygen especially at night helps improve the air quality by absorbing carbon dioxide, even after the sun goes down. Aloe Vera, Peepal, Tulsi (Indian Basil), and Gerbera are a few examples
• Make sure that nobody smokes indoors. Indoor air quality turns poor with secondary smoke and is an important contributor to indoor air pollution
• Installation of exhaust fans especially in kitchens helps reduce carbon dioxide released during cooking. Making sure that the smoke released during cooking does not circulate indoors. The absence of exhausts will increase the levels of carbon dioxide. This is especially important for smaller restaurants and houses
• Regular maintenance of your HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) will ensure that there is no accumulation of CO2 indoors
It is time to take charge and do something about the increased carbon dioxide levels if we do not want a dumber next generation with low IQ levels. Normal humans have an IQ between 100 and 130. People with an IQ of 70 and less are considered mentally handicapped. So with increased CO2 levels, a decrease in the IQ by even 5 points will bring a lot more people into the ‘mentally handicapped’ label unless action is taken immediately. So the next time you feel sleepy or can’t concentrate on a lecture or at the office you should know the culprit is probably not the subject of the meeting or lecture, but the air quality.
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