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Scientists Probe Indoor Work Spaces for Clues to Better Health

Contact David Zeidner, Director of Indoor Air Quality Services, of Hygieneering, Inc. for more information or to schedule your Proactive Indoor Air Quality assessment.

Hillman Hall, at Washington University in St. Louis, was designed with easy access to stairways, lots of natural light and other health-minded features. A yearlong study begun this summer will test if the design features boost employees’ physical activity and lead to greater collaboration. PHOTO: JAMES BYARD/WUSTL

Many people pay little attention to the air, light and other elements around them when they are working in an office or are at home.

Scientists increasingly are taking a critical look at such indoor environmental factors, which they say can affect our personal health and work performance. Specially outfitted buildings are being turned into laboratories to determine optimum air-ventilation rates, room temperatures, types of sounds and other features, and even whether these should change during the year.

A study published online [in October] in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that doubling the normal rate of air ventilation in a research building at Syracuse University in New York led to sharply higher scores by employees on a series of cognitive performance tests. At Washington University in St. Louis, researchers this summer began a yearlong experiment to test if a newly constructed building, designed with easy access to stairways, lots of natural light and other health-minded features, will boost employees’ physical activity and lead to greater collaboration.

Offices in a research building at Syracuse University where participants in a new study worked within an environmentally controlled space. The study found that doubling the normal rate of air ventilation led to sharply higher scores on cognitive-performance tests. PHOTO: HARVARD UNIVERSITY T.H. CHAN SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH

The machine room where researchers controlled the indoor air quality from the floor directly beneath the office space at Syracuse University. PHOTO: HARVARD UNIVERSITY T.H. CHAN SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH

Clinical trials are due to get underway early next year at the Well Living Lab, a new, 7,500-square-foot research facility adjacent to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., designed to study indoor environments with the aim of creating healthier spaces. Sensors throughout the building monitor factors ranging from noise levels to air quality and temperature; other sensors in furniture will tell how long people stay seated and their posture.

“The ultimate goal is to improve health,” said Brent Bauer, medical director of the Well Living Lab and professor of medicine for the Mayo Clinic Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program. “If we spend 90% of our time in an indoor environment there are almost endless opportunities to find better ways to do what we’re doing inside the building,” he said.

In the Environmental Health Perspectives study, 24 professionals were relocated for six workdays to the floor of a building where air quality could be manipulated from the machine room directly below. On different days, the researchers changed the air-ventilation rates and levels of carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which are emitted by products such as adhesives and cleaning fluids, said Joe Allen, assistant professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and lead author of the study.

After each workday, study participants were tested on nine cognitive functions while responding to simulated scenarios, such as acting as an emergency coordinator for a town. Functions tested included how people responded to crises and plotting strategies. The best average test scores by far were on days when the amount of outdoor air entering the office space was about double the standard ventilation rate and when levels of VOCs were at their lowest, said Dr. Allen.

A diagram of the Well Living Lab, a new research center adjacent to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where researchers will study how indoor environmental factors affect people who live and work there. PHOTO: CENTERBROOK ARCHITECTS AND PLANNERS

For U.S. commercial buildings, the minimum ventilation rate for acceptable air quality is 20 cubic feet per minute, according to the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning, a professional organization.

High VOC concentrations have been associated with upper respiratory symptoms and eye irritation, among other health issues, experts say. And semi-volatile compounds, such as flame-retardant chemicals found in many couches and carpets, have been found to act as hormone disrupters, Dr. Allen said. Hormone disruption can cause developmental problems and other health issues. “When we improve outdoor ventilation we’re decreasing the airborne concentration of these volatile and semi-volatile compounds, along with lowering carbon dioxide,” said Dr. Allen.

United Technologies Corp., of Farmington, Conn., which makes technology systems for the building and aerospace industries, was the primary source of funding for the study.

Other research also has found a reduction in work performance and more reports of headaches, fatigue and nose, eye and throat symptoms in office and school environments with relatively low ventilation rates, said Mark Mendell, an affiliate staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory near Berkeley, Calif., who wasn’t involved with the latest study.

And even when ventilation rates are adequate, increasing carbon dioxide levels can lead to decreased performance on decision-making tests, Dr. Mendell found in a 2012 study that included 22 participants. Carbon dioxide levels indoors are mainly affected by two things: the number of people in a room and how quickly the ventilation system is removing it, he said.

At Washington University, employees in the newly constructed Hillman Hall are participating in the yearlong study to gauge whether the building’s design lives up to its goal to promote health. The design aims to encourage workers to walk and stand more, and abundant natural light should reduce reliance on artificial lighting, said Amy Eyler, assistant dean for public health at Washington University.

The researchers collected baseline data on the employees before they moved into the building using accelerometers to measure movement. Surveys measured employees’ collaborative behavior and their impressions of the work space. A second set of data will be collected in the spring, Dr. Eyler said.

The Well Living Lab at Mayo Clinic can be reconfigured for use as offices, hotel rooms or apartments to test the effects of various environmental factors. People working or living in the space will be monitored 24 hours a day. Everything from their stress levels, heart rate and skin and body temperature to their movement, fidgeting and mood will be tracked through wearable devices, sensors, cameras and tests, said Dr. Bauer. Even sleep quality and respiratory rates will be measured with sensors embedded in mattresses, he said.

The project is being conducted jointly by Mayo Clinic and Delos, a New York City-based real estate and technology company.

The initial experiments will be done in an open-office environment with up to 30 people, Dr. Bauer said. He said experiments may include testing different colors, intensities and variations in lighting, as well as introducing natural lighting, to see if these can influence people’s nighttime sleep. The researchers also may introduce natural sounds into the work environment to see how this affects productivity and performance.

Delos executives said other possible experiments at the Well Living Lab may include manipulating light in a simulated hotel room to reverse the effect of jet lag or to prepare for it. The company also would be interested to study how older people lose their balance, by using pressure-sensing material in a floor, and in tracking how viruses spread through an office environment.

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