How Climate Change Could Make Office Work Even Unhealthier

“Sick building syndrome” and other indoor concerns could be exacerbated by climate change

Cubicles: Not just mind-numbing, but unhealthy too? © Michael Prince/Corbis

As the world heats up around us, many people take solace in the idea that their indoor lives may not be affected much by climate change.

But a number of experts say that hotter outdoor temperatures and extreme weather events like drought or storms may cause unhealthier conditions and less productivity in offices, schools and other buildings.

“When it comes to climate change and office work, I think that the reality is that our built environment, the buildings we work in and all of our systems, were built for a climate that we’re no longer living in,” says Aaron Bernstein, the associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard School of Public Health. “From any number of angles, climate change can increase the risk for potentially harmful environments.”

The hotter it gets, the more the cost of air-conditioning in office buildings around the world increases. In Japan, the government has tried since 2005 to get office workers to lose the formal jacket and tie to lower energy costs through campaigns like “Cool Biz,” and some media attention in the Unites States has focused on the idea of getting male office workers to dress a little more casual in the summer to lower the need for extreme (and possibly sexist, according to one columnist) air conditioning.

But apart from the obvious rise in utility costs, the changing climate may also set off a whole host of other problems for those desk-bound among us. Higher carbon levels could induce fatigue and affect decision making while mold and higher ozone levels that react with a number of chemicals used in common cleaning products can cause irritating symptoms like runny noses, dry eyes and other problems.

Carbon in the air

Rising carbon dioxide levels are one of the main problems inside buildings, according to John Spengler, the Akira Yamaguchi Professor of Environmental Health and Human Habitation at the Harvard School of Public Health. CO2 levels hit 400 parts per million in our atmosphere last May, according to readings by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. But Spengler says that CO2 levels in office buildings can be double this amount due to the presence of people inside breathing.

A recent study he was involved in shows that higher CO2 levels can affect work productivity. The researchers gave a number of tests to subjects exposed to different levels of CO2 and found that workers subjected to CO2 levels of 1,000 parts per million or higher showed shortcomings in decision making. Office buildings currently measure around 600 to 1,200 ppm, but these numbers will rise as outside CO2 levels increase with climate change.

“We’re seeing cognitive effects from carbon dioxide levels,” says Spengler, adding that offices aren’t the worst place for CO2 levels. He says tightly-packed schools have been measured at between 1,500 and 2,000 ppm while airplanes waiting on the tarmac for take-off can hit levels of up 4,000, with cruising levels of around 1,500.

“Too much carbon dioxide exposure makes you sleepy,” says Bernstein, who has studied the effects climate has on indoor spaces for around 15 years. “It’s one thing to stunt a business, another thing to stunt a child’s learning ability.”

Sick buildings make for sick employees

As early as the 1980s, office workers were complaining to their doctors about recurring symptoms like headaches, rashes or dry eyes.

Doctors eventually wrapped all these issues into the umbrella term of sick-building syndrome. “It was a fairly large hodgepodge of symptoms,” Bernstein says. But the syndrome isn’t well understood, and could have a number of different causes like background noise or the build-up of CO2, cleaning chemicals and mold.

“It’s become increasingly important to understand in detail what these causes may be,” Bernstein says.

Rising property costs and energy efficiency are two possible causes, prompting tighter buildings and the design of sealed structures more resistant to the elements. The latter saves landlords money on heating or air-conditioning, but sealed environments are also a two-edged sword, because they recirculate harmful chemicals among workers.

Climate change may be exacerbating the moisture the older buildings absorb. Bernstein says that cities like Boston are seeing more intense storms. The moisture can add up in older buildings without adequate drainage systems, causing mold.

While he says that some of the mold scare might be overblown, mold can be a significant trigger of breathing problems, skin conditions and headaches.

Ozone may be another problem contributing to sick building syndrome. As temperatures increase, they prompt higher ozone levels on the earth’s surface. This ozone can react with cleaning chemicals or other scented materials containing terpenes — those with lime scents have a lot. The reactions create other chemicals like aldehydes, which Spengler says can cause irritations in the eyes, nose and throat.

Designing a solution

If increasing carbon has an effect on the work force, why aren’t more businesses addressing these issues? One of the problems is disconnect between the building and the business owners.

“The cost returns on productivity far outweigh the cost of energy,” Spengler says, “but the problem is, different people pay the bills.” Tenants reap the benefits of retrofitting ventilation systems, while buildings owners pay the cost.

But there may be a solution. Brenna Walraven is an advisory board member of the energy efficiency program of the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), a professional organization that recommends standards and regulations for building construction and conditions. She says that the organization has set up an energy performance contracting framework that can lead building owners and the businesses to create cost-sharing systems for making energy improvements.

“It’s a win-win,” Walraven says.

Attack of the office buildings

In 2013, the so-called Walkie-Talkie skyscraper in London was blamed for reflecting light of its unusual curved surface, so strongly that it melted parts of a Jaguar parked on the street nearby. The building had to be fitted with a sunshade device to stop the concentrated beams of light from hitting the parking spaces and nearby shops and the mix up partly resulted in 20 Fenchurch Street winning an award for the worst building of 2015.

While the London example may be a novel case, it may be part of trend of office buildings themselves changing the climate of the area around. Many modern structures are designed with highly reflective window sidings, as they are attractive and keep the rooms inside from overheating. But this sunlight doesn’t disappear, and Spengler says that it has an effect on the sidewalks, parks and other areas surrounding the buildings.

“The implication is that we’re overheating our outdoor spaces, our public realm,” he said. “In our efforts to mitigate energy use and cost, we transfer that somewhere else.”

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