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Office space: What pollutes the air you breathe at work?

“How much are you polluting your office just by existing?”

That’s the rather vexing question posed by researchers at Purdue University in Indiana. It turns out we are each to blame quite a lot. Especially those of us who use deodorant and, er, breathe.

To figure this out the team rigged up an office building with thousands of sensors and a highly sensitive “nose” to identify indoor air contaminants and figure out how to control them.

The “nose” is an instrument normally used for measuring outdoor air quality.

It helped “sniff” out the compounds in human breath, such as isoprene, in real time – many of which linger in the office even after people have left the room.

Air quality can have an enormous impact on the productivity of office workers: poor air is blamed for dragging down workers’ alertness, health and mood.

And it turns out that the people inside an office, as well as its ventilation systems, have an enormous impact on how fit the air is to breathe.

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“The chemistry of indoor air is dynamic. It changes throughout the day based on outdoor conditions, how the ventilation system operates and occupancy patterns in the office,” said Dr Brandon Boor, an assistant professor of civil engineering at Purdue.

One of the key discoveries of the research is about the previously unknown behaviours of a set of chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which have been linked with respiratory, allergic and immune system problems.

“Our preliminary results suggest that people are the dominant source of volatile organic compounds in a modern office environment,” Dr Boor said.

“We found levels of many compounds to be 10 to 20 times higher indoors than outdoors.

“If an office space is not properly ventilated, these volatile compounds may adversely affect worker health and productivity.”

This super sensitive 'nose' instrument identified indoor air contaminants. Pic: Purdue
Image: This super sensitive ‘nose’ instrument identified indoor air contaminants. Pic: Purdue

During the course of their investigation the team found that pollutants entering from outside of the buildings – ozone – disappear once they gets inside.

“This is because ozone interacts with other indoor compounds and the vast surfaces of a furnished office,” according to Purdue University.

According to the researchers, ozone and compounds released from peeling an orange – called monoterpenes – can even mix to form new, super-tiny particles which could potentially be toxic because they are small enough to get into the deepest regions of a person’s lungs.

Ventilation systems can end up pushing deodorant, makeup and hair spray chemicals into the outdoors.

The researchers will present their initial findings at the 2019 American Association for Aerosol Research Conference in Portland, Oregon.

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