You would never guess the main culprits behind bad office air

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Indoor air pollutants cause bad air quality in office environments, and this can negatively affect the health of office workers, causing fatigue, irritated airways, and headaches.

To find out what pollutants are in the air, and ultimately improve productivity, a team of engineers at Purdue University has been conducting one of the largest studies of its kind in office spaces housed in a building (called Living Labs) equipped with thousands of sensors. Ultimately, the engineers want to be able to control the flow of air pollutants by designing and operating better office buildings.

“If we want to provide better air quality for office workers to improve their productivity, it is important to first understand what’s in the air and what factors influence the emissions and removal of pollutants,” said Brandon Boor, an assistant professor of civil engineering, in a release.

The two main culprits that have the most impact on office air? People, and ventilation systems.

It’s people who are the main source of volatile organic compounds, which is found in the breath in the form of isoprene and other VOCs. The more people in a room, the more volatile organic compounds. According to the EPA, volatile organic compounds are pollutants that cause negative health effects to varying degrees.

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

Other volatile compounds come from everyday personal products that people use like deodorant, makeup, and hairspray. Chemicals from these products can end up out-f-doors via the ventilation system.

In other words, when it comes to office air pollutants, the call is coming from inside the house.