Have you ever felt mentally dull in overcrowded classrooms? This explains it.
I find this particularly disturbing in relation to trends toward overcrowding as a response to tightening budgets. In Wisconsin, class sizes of 61 are sometimes mandated in financially troubled cities.
Overturning decades of conventional wisdom, researchers at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have found that moderately high indoor concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) can significantly impair people's decision-making performance. The results were unexpected and may have particular implications for schools and other spaces with high occupant density.
"In our field we have always had a dogma that CO2 itself, at the levels we find in buildings, is just not important and doesn't have any direct impacts on people," said Berkeley Lab scientist William Fisk, a co-author of the study, which was published in Environmental Health Perspectivesonline last month. "So these results, which were quite unambiguous, were surprising."
On nine scales of decision-making performance, test subjects showed significant reductions on six of the scales at CO2 levels of 1,000 parts per million (ppm) and large reductions on seven of the scales at 2,500 ppm. The most dramatic declines in performance, in which subjects were rated as "dysfunctional," were for taking initiative and thinking strategically. "Previous studies have looked at 10,000 ppm, 20,000 ppm; that's the level at which scientists thought effects started," said Berkeley Lab scientist Mark Mendell, also a co-author of the study. "That's why these findings are so startling."
While typical outdoor concentrations are around 380 ppm, indoor concentrations can go up to several thousand ppm.
In classrooms, concentrations frequently exceed 1,000 ppm and occasionally exceed 3,000 ppm. CO2 at these levels has been assumed to indicate poor ventilation, with increased exposure to other indoor pollutants of potential concern, but the CO2 itself at these levels has not been a source of concern. Federal guidelines set a maximum occupational exposure limit at 5,000 ppm as a time-weighted average for an eight-hour workday.
Data from elementary school classrooms has found CO2 concentrations frequently near or above the levels in the Berkeley Lab study. Although their study tested only decision making and not learning, Fisk and Mendell say it is possible that students could be disadvantaged in poorly ventilated classrooms, or in rooms in which a large number of people are gathered to take a test. "We cannot rule out impacts on learning," their report says. [emphasis mine]