You know that feeling you get when you feel like the room is closing in on you, and there’s just way too many people in the room for you to feel comfortable? The desire to get outside and get “fresh air” may feel overwhelming, and usually makes you feel better right away. It may not just be social anxiety, but a very real phenomenon that happens when people, especially large groups such as a conference or classroom, are grouped together behind closed doors. It’s the carbon dioxide level.
We breathe in oxygen and exhale air that contains about 4% carbon dioxide. Very few of us actually think about what’s happening at a scientific level when we’re stuck inside closed rooms, but a recent publication earlier this month provided real data on what’s happening in those situations.
Adam Ginsburg, an astronomer for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, was attending a conference in Helsinki and had a particular interest in monitoring the levels of carbon dioxide during meetings. He turned on the monitor during the conference and was eager to share what he observed during that meeting on June 4, 2019.
Regular, ambient, indoor air registers at 800 parts per million (800 ppm) of carbon dioxide. People start reporting feelings of being uncomfortable and the room feeling “stuffy” when it reaches 1,000 ppm.
Ginsburg’s conference started at 9:05 AM and not too long after the level in the room registered at 1,500 ppm. Ginsburg observed the room was “noticeably stuffy” at this point. By 10:20 am, the room had jumped past 1,700 ppm.
When the attendees of the conference were granted a 30-minute break around 10:50 am, they opened the windows. As the fresh air circulated throughout the room and the people breathing out the carbon dioxide left to stretch their legs, within minutes the monitor read below 600 ppm.
After the conference break ended and the windows were kept open, the monitor recorded carbon dioxide levels of 1,000-1,200 ppm.
Carbon dioxide levels increase feelings of drowsiness in office settings and can impact cognitive function when carbon dioxide reaches 1,000 ppm. Flight simulations and performances on decision-making tests have shown that carbon dioxide affects how the brain functions.
Classrooms are also a place where carbon dioxide can rise rapidly and affect performance. In a study of 2 schools in Texas, over 88% of the classrooms had levels of carbon dioxide above 1,000 ppm and levels over 3,000 ppm in 21% of the classrooms!
There’s a trend with just indoor ambient carbon dioxide that has been climbing since 1958: indoor air (not just in crowded places) has been observed to have spiked 100 ppm since 1958 and is now recorded as of May 2019 at a level of 414 ppm. Researchers believe that it will continue to rise and may climb all the way to 1,000 ppm by 2100. The effect it will have on us as we try to perform, study, and work may be detrimental.
Methods and products to circumvent these effects are being researched and developed, and with carbon dioxide levels receiving more attention in the scientific community, hopefully workplaces and schools will start integrating more air-filtering technologies so we can continue to work at our best.