Story straight from \”an\” office in Belgium. Five days in a row, we examine factors that influence well-being at work.
Today: the consequences of poor air quality, a problem that is much more common than you might think. Bad indoor air quality effects your staff productivity and well-being.
There is a musty smell today. The smell of old shoes or a lunch box that has been in a children\’s bag for five days. It can not be me, I showered this morning and wear clean clothes. A colleague, maybe? Also unlikely. Even when nobody is around, it does not smell really fresh.
Is it perhaps the air quality in the office? It might be possible. In a study by the University of Harvard I read that the air in office buildings is often very polluted. \”People spend up to 90% of their time in offices, schools and homes,\” it says literally. \”We breathe all day, 8 to 10 litres of air per minute. And so we are mainly exposed to polluted air inside. \”
Surprisingly, anyway. In case of pollution, you spontaneously think of smog and exhaust fumes, not the air conditioning at work. Yet the air in offices is often dirtier than you might suspect. Carpets, for example, are often full of fine dust. \”They are real dust collectors,\” says professor of occupational medicine Lode Godderis (KU Leuven). \”And when vacuumed, that dust gets airborne and we breathe it.\”
I do some research on the internet. I find a lot of information about \’volatile organic compounds\’. These are miniscule fabrics that float invisibly through the air. They come from glue, printers, polishes and drying paint. And they can be detrimental to our health when we breathe them.
\”Those volatile organic compounds are an underestimated problem,\” says Professor Godderis. \”Office air is sometimes so polluted that people literally get sick of it. Some get a headache or feel tired, others suffer from eye irritations or respiratory complaints. We then speak about sick building syndrome. \”
Do I work in such a sick building myself? I do not think so because from time to time we monitor the air we breathe. Maybe I just have a hypersensitive sense of smell. There is only one way to find out: measure the air quality.
Professor Godderis lends me a device to analyze the air. It makes a humming noise that colleagues get out of their concentration, but it is capable of intercepting volatile organic substances. Exactly what I need.
I get the results five days later. \”We found volatile organic compounds in the air\”. \”There were traces of ethanol, limonene and acetone. They are probably from chaste products. Limonene, for example, is used to give chilled products a fresh lemon scent. \”
Fortunately, low concentrations are involved. \”You certainly do not have to worry,\” Godderis reassures me. \”The measurements were certainly not dramatic.\”
Take a breath
Thus, it is not volatile organic particles. But how is it that the air always feels so unpleasant? My colleague Ben suggests that it may have something to do with an excess of CO2.\”Especially at night I always have the feeling that there is too much CO2 in the air,\” he says. \”The problem seems to me when many people sit together. As if you get less oxygen there. \”
Too much CO2, would that be the problem? It might be possible. \”ETS did research in schools a few years ago\”. \”In some classrooms we closed all windows and doors. Already after two hours we saw far too high concentrations of CO2. And that had an effect on the children. They could concentrate a lot less. \”
I find a study from the University of Harvard, in which scientists created a fully controlled office environment. They could manipulate the air quality unnoticed, without their test subjects being aware of it.The conclusion of the experiment? Impure or CO2-rich air largely undermined the performance of the test subjects. They were less able to plan ahead and made worse decisions.
Dry air and too much CO2
I lend another measuring device, and it measures temperature, humidity and CO2. I use it two days in a row: first on my colleagues. They often complain about the bad air. \”It\’s like you\’re locked up in an aquarium with too little oxygen,\” I hear someone complain. I can talk about it myself. Until two months ago I was locked up in that aquarium.
We again examine the results and this time it turns out to be problematic. At my new workplace there is no CO2 problem, but the humidity is below par. From about three o\’clock in the afternoon it is much too dry. \”That can cause headaches and a sore throat,\”.
The word \’sore throat\’ does ring a bell. If the air is too dry, it may explain why I have to cough so often at work.
They also shows me the measurement results taken at my colleagues. The air humidity is fine there, but there is a big CO2 problem. \”The amount of CO2 increases very strongly during the course of the day. Around three o\’clock in the afternoon they are close to the legal CO2 concentration that can not be exceeded. And that can cause fatigue, headaches and concentration problems. \”
Clean air, better work
The balance of my two measurements: one room with too dry air and one room with too much CO2. To solve these problems, I call my colleague Luc, responsible for the air conditioning systems. Luc is willing to listen and immediately comes up with solutions.
The situation is fairly easy to solve, as it turns out. \”We just need to turn on one central pump again, which is off in the hot summer months, but apparently it lowers the humidity, but I\’ll make sure that the pump runs again tomorrow.\”
Together we walk to our colleagues. Here too, the solution is surprisingly simple. \”We just have to modify the operation of the air conditioning,\” says Luc. \”If we do that, more fresh air will be blown in here. Then the CO2 content will decrease itself. \”
As I write this last paragraph, I catch myself on yet another cough. But fortunately there is good improvement in sight. Maybe the air is moist again from tomorrow and I can stop coughing. I hope so, although it will take some time for my wife to get used to it.
What can you do yourself?
- Open the windows regularly. Even on days with smog, the air inside is often dirtier than outside. A ten minute airing is sufficient.
- Occasionally go outside to sniff some fresh air
- If you feel that the air quality is bad, contact us, talk about it, we can measure, analyse and provide suitable solutions.