I was in a fourth floor office on the extreme Eastern end of the installation. The view was great, fantastic colleagues, interesting puzzles and questions ... the problem was something smelled wrong. Nearly two months had passed since I moved to the downgrade and it was time to get serious. A massive retrofit to Bell Labs buildings 1 and 2 at Murray Hill, the downgrade was an external corridor five stories high and over eight hundred feet long intended to bring location infrastructure up to date as well as to improve energy efficiency.1
Office buildings need to have their airflow balanced to keep the air fresh and prevent the buildup of undesirable pollutants. My office airflow was poor and there was an ever present chemical background smell. In theory it had been adjusted twice, but I wasn't seeing any change. I needed help and that meant doing a bit of trading. Murray Hill had something of an underground economy that was very useful when dealing with the trades. Many of these people were extremely good at what they did, but it was a union shop with strict scheduling and work rules. A variety of currencies were used, I was part of the baking economy.
Tony got a blueberry pie. He had access to some serious air monitoring kit and was more than happy to come down with two portable racks. Unsurprisingly we found a variety of volatile organic compounds and stagnant airflow in most of the office. What surprised me was a carbon dioxide reading of about 1,600 ppm. I knew that too much was not a good thing, but had no idea what the limits were.
After some searching it became clear that values over about 5,000 were considered dangerous, but tests suggested lower limits were in order. The standard for HVAC systems was to try to keep levels under 1,000 ppm - about 650ppm above atmospheric levels at the time. 1,000 still appears to be the target number.
I needed an airflow expert. I knew from experience Sal was a chocolate chip cookie guy. It took nearly three days of on and off adjustments along with replacing the tiles in the ceiling and floor to replace with a special nonvolatile variety earmarked for the executive offices. (he really liked my baking) VOCs came right down and he managed to get CO2 tracking between 475 and 550 ppm.
Years before there was the Brookhaven house. During the late 70s some work was done on passive solar homes as a response to the energy crisis - at the time a large percentage of homes in the Northeast were heated with imported oil. The idea was to link architects with physicists and material scientists and anyone else with an interest to see if a normal looking home could be built for about the same price as a conventional home, but with annual heating, cooling and hot water energy costs under $100
The house easily exceeded its energy goals. Mostly it was used for testing, but at times people could stay there. The problem was it was sealed so tightly that you noticed the stale air and felt uncomfortable. Better heat exchangers that allowed more air circulation needed development and, if necessary, it was better to leak a bit of air to keep indoor pollution levels low. This is largely a solved problem these days, but I spent some time in the house and its problems started me to think about the problem.
Over the years studies came out showing that indoor air was often much worse than some of the most polluted cities on the planet. A few of the studies looked at cognitive problems. CO2 was particularly interesting as most large building HVAC systems measure it. Some studies suggest that cognitive impairment begins around 1,000 ppm, but others suggested lower thresholds - some in the 600 to 800 ppm range. I'd venture a guess that, unless you're outside, where you're sitting is above 600 ppm.
Getting these studies right is very difficult as office and school environments have very dynamic atmospheres. Cognitive studies add a level of complexity. Recently a robust study was published in Environmental Health Perspectives.
It studies at VOCs and CO2 levels in office environments and suggests fairly dramatic improvements can be had. The disturbing note, something that needs further verification, is statistically significant cognitive impairment occurred at levels commonly found in offices and school - 950 ppm. Impairment increased with increased concentrations and was very noticeable at 1,400 ppm.
from the conclusion
Office workers had significantly improved cognitive function scores when working in Green and Green+ environments compared to a Conventional one. Exposure to CO2 and VOCs at levels found in Conventional office buildings was associated with lower cognitive scores compared to levels in a Green building. Using low emitting materials, which is common practice in Green buildings, reduces in-office VOC exposures. Increasing the supply of outdoor air not only lowers exposures to CO2 and VOCs, but also exposure to other indoor contaminants. Green building design that optimizes employee productivity and energy usage will require adopting energy efficient systems and informed operating practices to maximize the benefit to human health while minimizing energy consumption. This study was designed to reflect indoor office environments in which large numbers of the population work every day. These exposures should be investigated in other indoor environments, such as homes, schools and airplanes, where decrements in cognitive function and decision-making could have significant impacts on productivity, learning and safety.
It needs to be stressed that much more work needs to be done, but if you spend your time with cognitively demanding tasks you may want to have a conversation with your building's HVAC engineer to measure and possibly adjust your office VOC and CO2 levels. There are some groups that worry about this. Are organizations being handicapped with high levels of indoor pollution? What happens when people are better equipped to measure this on their own?2
And the subject line... if your kid was taking the SAT and lower carbon dioxide levels were an extra cost option, how much would you be willing to pay?
1 An aerial view of Bell Labs Murray Hill. My office was at the location marked by the red arrow. The transistor was invented in several labs roughly where the yellow arrow points on the fourth floor. The retrofit was called the upgrade, but most of us called it something else.
2 This is a tough question. It is likely that low cost meters that talk to, or are even built into, smartphones will appear. We're seeing that now with PM2.5 measurements in China now and has had a big impact on government decision making. Any measurement needs to be understood in terms of accuracy and repeatability as well as the context of where and how it was taken. Getting this right for many of these measurements is a challenge. I worry that a flurry of low quality tools and measurements may cause more problems than they solve in the beginning. At the same time having thousands or millions of people making environmental measurements in their homes, offices and cities may force large amounts of change on law makers and the legal process.
Very easy - try variations. I make this and variations all Fall and Winter.
Roast Green Beans
° 1 pound fresh green beans
° 2 tbl olive oil
° 1/2 tsp kosher salt
° 1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
° 1/4 cup slice almonds, or pecans
° 1/4 cup dried cranberries.
° preheat oven to 425° F
° snap off the ends of the beans. Put them in a large bowl and toss with oil, salt and pepper. Spread the coated beans on a rimmed pan/
° roast for about 15 minutes
° remove the pan and sprinkle the nuts and cranberries... return to the oven and roast for another 5 minutes or so.
° adjust the seasoning if necessary and serve.