The Carbon Dioxide in a Crowded Room Can Make You Dumber

The levels of CO2 in crowded rooms impairs mental function. I've experienced this, struggling to pay attention in crowded meeting rooms.

... a study published last month in Environmental Health Perspectives suggests that the collective carbon dioxide exhaled by all the people around you might cause you to think more slowly.

When researchers from SUNY Upstate Medical University and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory put 24 healthy young adults in an enclosed room and tested their decision-making ability at different levels of carbon dioxide concentration routinely experienced in crowded rooms, they found that the participants' performance declined significantly.

"Previous studies have looked at 10,000 ppm, 20,000 ppm; that's the level at which scientists thought effects started," Mendell told Phys.org. "That's why these findings are so startling."

For reference, the air outside typically has a carbon dioxide level around 380 ppm, but because we exhale the gas when we breathe, levels indoors are generally much higher—in crowded classrooms or meeting rooms, levels frequently reach 1,000 ppm and sometimes exceed 3,000 ppm.


EPA guidelines suggest that carbon dioxide concentrations in classrooms be no higher than 700 ppm more than outdoors, which typically ends up being around 1,000 to 1,100 ppm. These standards, though, were originally developed based on the ventilation levels at which body odors become apparent, not any concrete measure of the effects of carbon dioxide on the body.

Decision-making decreased moderately at 1,000 ppm as measured on seven of the nine scales, with decreases ranging from 11 to 23 percent, and significantly on those same scales at 2,500 ppm, with decreases of 44 to 94 percent. The most dramatic effects were found in the participants' ability to engage in strategic thinking and take initiative. "The magnitude of effects measured at 2,500 ppm was astonishing—so astonishing that it was almost hard to believe,” Berkeley Lab scientist Mark Mendell, a coauthor, told Science News.


The results are especially concerning because recent efforts to build more energy-efficient buildings have actually cut down on the amount of ventilation in many classrooms. "As there's a drive for increasing energy efficiency, there's a push for making buildings tighter and less expensive to run," … [emphasis mine]

Performance declined in decision-making as measured on seven of nine scales when carbon dioxide concentrations in the room increased. Image via Environmental Health Perspectives

Tags: ability to think, carbon dioxide, indoor air quality

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Replies to This Discussion

And apart from that, the noise and chatter don't help either.

This is an amazing finding. 

"Previous studies have looked at 10,000 ppm, 20,000 ppm" of CO2. 

This study revealed "Decision-making decreased moderately at 1,000 ppm ... from 11 to 23 percent,

"at 2,500 ppmdecreases of 44 to 94 percent." ...

The most dramatic effects were found in the participants' ability to engage in strategic thinking and take initiative. 

"The magnitude of effects measured at 2,500 ppm was astonishing—so astonishing that it was almost hard to believe,” 

 

Necessary skills when faced with complex problems and conflicts include the ability to think strategically and the ability to take initiative. Any deficiency in these skills tends to impede effective resolution. 

So now I have an excuse!

Honestly, this explains a lot of what happens at corporate meetings.  They are making decisions with too much CO2 in the air.  I thought it was just that committees lower everyone's IQ.

Oh - and in those megachurches....  ?

Ruth, I think you've finally explained religious meetings and ceremonies!

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