Offices can be a stew of various odors, from perfumes to microwaved lunches. However, the air breathed in offices may contain actual pollutants, not just unpleasant odors. According to an article from Scientific American, office workers are breathing a mix of ozone, carbon dioxide, particulate matter, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The article further reports that studies have linked VOCs to fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, and cancer. A recent study from Purdue University aimed to identify sources of indoor pollutants, including humans, and is summarized in the video below.
The findings of this study were presented at the American Association for Aerosol Research Conference in October 2019. According to the study’s abstract, VOC emissions come from exhaled breath, skin secretions, perfumes, cosmetics and other personal care products, clothing, microorganisms, and ozone-skin secretions. So, office workers are impacting air quality simply by their presence.
How can office air quality be evaluated? The Herrick Living Laboratories at Purdue University mimic a modern, open-plan office setting with precise HVAC systems. An array of sensors monitors and tracks how indoor and outdoor airflow through the office space and ventilation system. Researchers created a system that simulated a “highly-sensitive nose” to detect and record in real-time the presence of various compounds. The living lab was monitored for one month, from February to March 2019.
Brandon Boor, assistant professor of civil engineering, told Purdue reporters that “our preliminary results suggest that people are the dominant source of volatile organic compounds in a modern office environment.” He continues by reporting that they discovered many compounds to be 10 to 20 times higher in the office setting than outdoors. The research team found that VOCs related to personal care products, such as deodorant, peaked in the morning. VOCs related to metabolic activity peaked in mid-afternoon. Without proper ventilation, these VOCs and other emitted throughout the workday may impact worker health and productivity.
Boor and the research team are hopeful that their work will help provide guidelines on proper operation and design of ventilation systems to improve office air quality and worker health and wellbeing.