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Air Quality and Work Smarts: It’s Not All in Your Head


While we don’t all live in places with visible smog, poor air quality is something that can sneak up on you. Bad air can come from sources including vehicles, utilities, heating and cooling machinery, and even climate change, according to the American Lung Association. Not all of us are so hard up that we’re into buying canned air, but maybe we should be a little more worried about long-term effects of air pollution on our productivity.

air pollution

(Photo Credit: Fabian Bromann/Flickr)

Poor Air Quality Affects Your Brain

Do You Know What You're Worth?

 A recent study by the University of California-Santa Barbara of long-term effects of air pollution showed what at first seems to be just a correlation, not a causal relationship. As noted in a recent Quartz article, the researchers found that “for every 10% decrease in exposure to suspended particles in the year of birth, a person’s earnings increased by at least 1% at age 30 (and vice-versa).”

However, the study data do show “that two things could help explain the differences in earnings: health and cognitive ability.” It’s been shown that exposure just before and after birth to poor air quality can have a negative impact on cognitive ability (as measured by standardized testing). So, bad air when you’re a young child, even before you’re born, can affect your cognitive function later in life, say, at school or at work.

Lack of Fresh Air Affects Your Brain at Work

Another recent study, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, finds that poor air quality, often found in stuffy office buildings, can actually harm workers’ mental abilities. Ars Technica notes that while conventional office buildings are good at sealing you in tight where the air conditioning or heat is, that comes at a sacrifice of air exchange, a.k.a. fresh air, which is good for your brain box.

Air quality at work can be a real source of worker strife. If you can’t work in a LEED-certified building with awesome air quality, then may make a point of stepping outside into the world of fresh air a few times a day.

What You Can Do

Besides becoming an advocate for clean air in the area where you live, you can do small things to make the air better where you work and sleep. When it comes to getting cleaner air inside, you can bring a little bit of the outdoors in to get some relief. NASA has studied the use of having certain plants inside to “clean” the air with their natural planty processes.

Lots of them are in the “hard to kill” category (which is good news if you’re not so good with growing leafy things), but always check the recommended conditions to see if your dark (or sunny) corner of the office is the right one for your prospective new plant buddy. For those with sensitivities to scents, try to avoid picking any blooming plants like garden mums, or a peace lily, which can add to office odor battles. Non-smelly but helpful versions include leafy Boston ferns, snake plants, and spider plants. 

Tell Us What You Think

Have you suffered from bad air quality? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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