Is Your Home Office Poisoning You?

The amount of carbon dioxide in the air in your home office could be seriously impairing your ability to concentrate. Read on to find out why this is, and what you can do about it.

Depending on the size of the room or apartment that you are in, and the number of people crammed in there, you may be sitting in a soup of carbon dioxide the is potent enough to impair your cognitive ability by up to 50%.

In this post, I will go through some of the info that I have found on the effects of indoor CO2, but before you read on… why not go and open that window?

Here’s a few numbers to get us all warmed up

Pre-industrial CO2 level in the atmosphere was ~260ppm. Our fossil fuel burning has increased this to around 400ppm, which is about the minimum that you will see in your home, or anywhere for that matter.

While the concentrations of CO2 outdoors are increased over many years by burning hydrocarbons, indoor concentrations are increased because of our breathing. We humans are basically just machines that suck in oxygen, and spit out carbon dioxide. Each time we breath in, the air will be~400ppm, but the air that we breath out has a much higher concentration of CO2. An exhaled breath will have ~38,000ppm.

This means that if you sit in an enclosed space then the concentration of CO2 in the room will increase over time.

This is a critical problem on submarines and spacecraft and the like, where there are dedicated CO2 scrubbers removing the gas from the air. This is something of a problem in large communal spaces, such as schools and offices, where there are legally mandated airflow requirements which will keep the CO2 concentration within the acceptable bounds using HVAC systems.

This might also be a problem in your home office, where there are no CO2 scrubbers, and no HVAC systems keeping the air breathable.

When does indoor CO2 become a problem?

In a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives (and summarised in Nature), participants were exposed to 550, 945, and 1400 ppm CO2 during a normal 8 hour work day. Compared to the 550ppm baseline, cognitive scores were 15% lower at 945ppm, and a fairly frightening 50% lower at 1400ppm.

The cognitive function assessment was carried out using the ‘Strategic Management Simulation’, which is a validated computer based test that has been designed to test the effectiveness of management level employees through assessments of higher-order decision making.

Participants were exposed to diverse situations based on real-world equivalent challenges, such as handling a township in the role of a mayor or emergency coordinator.

The study measures 9 ‘cognitive domains’, which were:

  1. Basic Activity Level: Overall ability to make decisions at all times
  2. Applied Activity Level: Capacity to make decisions that are geared toward overall goals
  3. Focused Activity Level: Capacity to pay attention to situations at hand
  4. Task Orientation: Capacity to make specific decisions that are geared toward completion of tasks at hand
  5. Crisis Response: Ability to plan, stay prepared, and strategize under emergency conditions
  6. Information Seeking: Capacity to gather information as required from different available sources
  7. Information Usage: Capacity to use both provided information and information that has been gathered toward attaining overall goals
  8. Breadth of Approach: Capacity to make decisions along multiple dimensions and use a variety of options and opportunities to attain goals
  9. Strategy: Complex thinking parameter that reflects the ability to use well-integrated solutions with the help of optimal use of information and planning

The study found that cognitive function scores were 15% lower for the moderate CO2 day (~ 945 ppm) and 50% lower on the day with CO2 concentrations of ~1,400ppm.

Given that many of us home workers will recognise aspects of many of the above bullet points in our day to day work, a cognitive decline of 50% is fairly worrying to say the least. And depending on the role that the home worker is undertaking, such a decline could pose a genuine safety risk.

This result naturally poses the question.. What sort of concentrations would I see in my home office?

If you are thinking that a concentration ~1400ppm is particularly high, then I have some bad news for you…

A typical home office

To find out what was happening in my own home office, I bought an Awair Element CO2 monitor, shut the door, and got to work on a typical work day.

This was the result.

As you can see from the above chart, my home office started at the ‘background’ concentration of ~400ppm, as would be expected. However, after only a couple of hours I had breathed my way up to the 945ppm threshold and was presumably suffering a 15% decline in my cognitive abilities. By lunchtime I was up at nearly 1600ppm, at which point I decided to end the experiment and open the door.

I had planned to sit for the whole day with the door closed to see how bad the air got, but at this level I felt noticeably fatigued, and so I gave up. Opening the door meant that the CO2 I was exhaling could circulate round my entire flat. The increased volume that I had to dilute my exhalations meant that it settled out at around 700ppm. Opening the window brings it back down to 400, but also brings the temperature in the room down.

Is this typical?

Yes, it is. I didn’t do anything atypical for any of the millions of us currently still working in home offices. I think it’s safe to say that if you are sitting in a home office, with the door closed, and breathing continuously (which I assume you are), then you will be sitting in air that will be significantly impairing your ability to concentrate.

It’s worth noting that my flat is fairly big, and I am in here on my own during the day. This problem gets much worse if there are multiple people sharing a smaller space. A family of four sharing an apartment could expect to see significantly higher indoor concentrations.

What do I make of all this?

Housing in the UK is not designed at all with ventilation in mind. Actually, the opposite is true, where properties are designed to reduce heating bills by trapping warm air in the house as much as possible.

This is a serious problem if you are expecting to get any thought-work done in a home environment.

This is also a serious problem if you are expecting your children to do any home schooling.

This could be an extremely serious problem if they type of work you are undertaking from home has any kind of safety critical element to it.

I would recommend that at the very least, do not sit with the door closed. If possible, crack the window a bit. I think that an indoor CO2 monitor for your home office is a very useful purchase, and leave it somewhere you can see it at all times.

I also think that this will have to become a consideration for employers who are expecting their staff to work from home, particularly anyone who is on safety-critical roles.

The good news though, is that the solution is extremely simple. All you have to do is get up and open the window!

Technical Lead and co-founder at Avalone Consultants. Angular, .NET, and blockchain developer.

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