The Air We Breathe

When evaluating any indoor environment from a “greening” perspective, my baseline focus is on the air quality. Convincing people that what they can’t see is what they need to be most concerned about is always a challenge. Unless you have asthma or extreme sensitivity to airborne toxins (and sometimes not even then), it’s a hard sell.

A recent study is giving me some fresh ammunition however. The study was led by Harvard environmental health researcher, Joseph Allen and set out to replicate “conditions that are commonly encountered every day in many indoor environments.” The concern is primarily about the carbon dioxide (exhaled by humans) and the volatile organic compounds introduced to the environment by building materials, carpets, furnishings and a host everyday items including printing materials, paper and electronics.

Screen Shot 2015-11-15 at 10.46.20 PMThe controlled study demonstrated how conventional indoor environments vs. “green” designed environments presented a marked difference in the air we breathe related to cognitive function. “We saw a doubling of cognitive performance scores in the environments that started with a green building, and we enhanced the outdoor ventilation rate.”

The study has shown that indoor carbon dioxide concentrations in particular, are not as benign as previously believed. It turns out that decision-making functions present “statistically significant decrements” as indoor carbon dioxide concentrations increase from 600 to 1000 parts per million.

Even as energy efficiency codes are frequently at odds with ventilation – the tighter the building envelope, the more energy efficient – there is also the reality that many of the oldest, most toxic buildings house the most precious, young minds – students. So what’s to be done?

First Do No Harm!

Be aware of what is being introduced to the environment and its off-gasing potential. As an example, the area carpet that many classrooms replace yearly as a meeting/learning/listening space for the youngest students, could potentially be the Screen Shot 2015-11-15 at 10.36.15 PMmost toxic thing in the room.

Many teachers and administrators choose the carpet based on stain & water resistance and price point. This type of carpet is generally vinyl backed and emits a host of VOC’s for the length of its life – not to mention the landfill that it inevitably ends up in. Careful consideration should be made on these items. All natural fiber, non-treated options are available, and even if they cost a bit more, they are worth it. Remember, common VOCs like formaldehyde, benzaldehyde and acetaldehyde, hover around a foot and a half off the ground – precisely the height of those little bodies when sitting in reading circle.

In addition, it is vital that the daily cleaning of a space should not contribute to the contamination of that space. Chemical-free cleaning solutions are effective and safe. Unless you are in a medical environment, natural cleaners are a no-brainer.

Open a Window

Even during the coolest and hottest months of the year, there is always a strategic point in the day to open windows for ventilation. If it’s possible to open the top of the window as well as the bottom, you’ll create circular ventilation. Open a door or windows on opposite ends of a room, and you’ll create cross ventilation. Nobody wonders why a walk outside generally clears your head. And a hike in the woods is even better. There is a reason that using forests as spas has been a practice for as long as we have records. Trees sink carbon and emit aerosols that can be therapeutically beneficial to all living organisms. After all, aspirin was developed from tree bark.

Bring Nature Indoors

Screen Shot 2015-11-15 at 10.52.06 PMYou will rarely see a “green” design that doesn’t introduce vegetation to the indoor Screen Shot 2015-11-15 at 10.52.54 PMspace. Plants do for indoor air what trees do for outside air. According to a NASA study, four or five indoor plants can significantly detoxify a 500 sq. foot space.

How Does the Space Make You Feel?

Be aware of how you feel in a space. Are you productive? Can you sustain your focus? Can you take a deep breath or are you constantly yawning? Continual yawing may have less to do with boredom or sleep deprivation and more to do with a lack of fresh air exchange. Do you continually crave sugar and/or caffeine? Those energy-food cravings can be caused by an energy-zapping environment. It is shown that EMFs (electro magnetic fields) have an effect on your nervous system that can result in ADD like symptoms to headaches and even infertility. Monitor how you feel in your space and your proximity to light, fresh oxygen, heavy electronics, wiring and cell towers.

Light and air have a tremendous effect on your wellbeing. Sunlight is a natural disinfectant. Mold, for instance, has a hard time growing in a well-lit space. Don’t Screen Shot 2015-11-15 at 11.09.32 PMconfuse the comfort of air temperature with the quality of the air. Air conditioners are heat exchangers not air exchangers. They don’t ventilate, freshen or purify air, but rather recirculate it at a different temperature. And a toasty, open fireplace releases a significant amount of carbon dioxide into your indoor environment. The most efficient wood burning fireplaces are incased with a controlled oxygen feed, like a wood stove or a hearth insert.

 

 

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About the Author

Here at Jenny Green Jeans, by sharing success stories and easy-to- implement tips, I hope to inspire and empower you to continue to make sustainable choices in your life and watch how far the impact goes. Contact me with any questions or suggestions you may have.

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  1. laura@laura-e-kelly.com' Laura Kelly says:

    Thanks for these interesting environmental tips for increasing cognitive function! Opening windows, using safer cleaners, and adding plants to my office are very doable, and I’ll be trying it.

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