The concept of poor indoor air quality and its adverse effects on health has been a well-established fact. There is a long history of scientific evidence showing that poor air is linked to various respiratory problems, such as asthma, bronchitis, and pneumonia. However, the effects of poor IAQ extends beyond respiratory issues and can also impact other organs — including the brain. 

Poor indoor air quality can damage mental health 

A study featured in the JAMA Psychiatry, analyzed health data of nearly 400,000 adults, predominantly of white ethnicity, residing in the United Kingdom. The study integrated data on their initial residential locations over the course of a ten-year study period, alongside medical records, lifestyle details, and air pollution statistics.

The researchers subsequently categorized the participants into four groups based on their levels of exposure to air pollution. The study then revealed that individuals with the lowest levels of air pollution exposure were the least prone to being diagnosed with depression or anxiety. Interestingly, it was the group with the second-highest exposure that experienced the most significant increase in both conditions, amounting to approximately 15%.

Furthermore, a meta-analysis from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has revealed that the exposure to particulate matter (PM2.5) may increase the risk of developing dementia. The researchers examined over 2,000 studies, finding 51 that focus on the connection between air pollution and the said illness. These selected studies were all published within that past decade. The meta-analysis found consistent evidence of PM2.5 and dementia correlation, claiming that there is a 17% increase in risk for developing dementia for every 2 μg/m3 increase in average annual exposure to PM2.5.

Effects of poor IAQ on cognitive function

A 2021 study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health discovered the relationship between indoor air quality in office buildings and employees’ cognitive performance. 

In this study, more than 300 subjects working in a variety of fields including engineering, real estate investment, architecture, and technology from 6 countries and over 40 office buildings were gathered. Each subject’s workspace was installed with an indoor air quality sensor that tracks real-time concentrations of PM2.5, carbon dioxide, temperature, and relative humidity. When the measurements of these parameters rise or decline, an app which is accessible via mobile phone would inform the participants and would prompt them to participate in tests and surveys. One test required employees to identify the color of displayed words and was used to evaluate cognitive speed and inhibitory control. The second test consisted of basic arithmetic questions and was used to assess cognitive speed and working memory.

The researchers found that  increased concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and lower ventilation rates (measured using carbon dioxide (CO2) levels) were linked to slower response times and reduced accuracy on a series of cognitive tests. The researchers emphasized that they observed impaired cognitive function at concentrations of PM2.5 and CO2 that are common within indoor environments.

Poor indoor air quality and ADHD

Another research claims that children tend to exhibit behaviors commonly linked to autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at a higher rate when they are exposed to prenatal air pollution. In a study conducted in 2022 by the University of Southern California School of Medicine and Kaiser Permanente, it was observed that the exposure to PM2.5 during the first and second trimesters of pregnancy was linked to an elevated likelihood of ASD in children. Notably, among children with prenatal exposure to PM2.5, boys appeared to face the highest risk. Additionally, there is evidence suggesting that the severity of ASD symptoms in childhood may intensify with increased prenatal exposure to the said category of particulate matter. 

It is imperative to recognize that the detrimental effects of poor IAQ extend beyond respiratory concerns and encompass profound implications for the brain. This underscores the importance of addressing and improving the air we breathe not only for the sake of our lungs but also to safeguard and promote the well-being of our cognitive functions and overall mental health. 

Preventing the effects of air pollution on the brain primarily involves reducing exposure to polluted air and adopting changes to mitigate potential damage. Here are some strategies:

  • Install air purification systems
  • Ensure proper ventilation
  • Adopt IAQ regulations and standards set by the government or building certification programs
  • Monitor the air quality 
  • Keep your work environment clean and dust-free
  • Ensure proper storage of chemicals and cleaning agents

While these strategies can help reduce the effects of poor IAQ, they may not provide complete protection. Therefore, it is essential to regularly monitor the air quality to gauge the efficacy of your IAQ measures and establish IAQ management protocols tailored to your specific requirements and workplace conditions.

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