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Biology, Chemistry, Psychology, Sustainability

Save our brains!

I’ve heard about the challenges of indoor air quality a few times. I’ve worked in buildings that had reputations as sick buildings. And oh my word, I’ve been questioning the quality of my home air since moving to working from home. While there are factors that impact our indoor air quality that are independent of the outdoors, like the paints and other materials used inside, the outdoor air does have a large impact on indoor air quality. So, what is going to happen to the carbon dioxide levels inside our buildings if they continue to rise outside?

The literature review of an upcoming paper by Karnauskas, Miller, and Schapiro (2020) is a somewhat terrifying overview of the negative impacts of increased carbon dioxide (CO2) levels on our cognitive function. There has been research dating back to 1967 that has found negative impacts of high CO2 concentrations on our ability to respond to stimulus, reason, and engage in threat processing. Slightly lower CO2 concentrations have been shown to impair visual perception which is concerning considering these levels occur in cars and planes. CO2 levels found in poorly ventilated buildings like some schools have been found to impact standardized test scores, attendance, attention, memory, and concentration. What’s interesting is that it seems to be higher-level cognitively demanding tasks that are most impacted by increased CO2 levels.

Karnauskas et al (2020) modeled indoor air quality based on predicted outdoor CO2 levels. So one, because of what we already know, whatever the level of CO2 outside, it will be higher inside. Which means that “On the unmitigated CO2 emission pathway (RCP8.5), we may be in for a ~25% reduction in our indoor basic decision-making ability, and a ~50% reduction in more complex strategic thinking, by the year 2100 relative to today” (p. 10).

There is some hope that the body may be able to adapt as submariners and astronaut-like subjects did not show negative effects. But honestly, I’d rather not hope that my body, or those of humans in the future will adapt. And of course, we could always hope that technology improves enough to mitigate the effects. While I won’t be around by 2100, I presume there will be a decline starting long before that and I feel like the decline I’ll already experience due to aging is more than enough thanks. Just one more reason to encourage sustainable transitions and living.

Note: The version of this article that I read has been through full peer review and has been accepted for publication but it hasn’t yet been through processes like copyediting. Therefore, the page number of the quote above will change upon publication.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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