Elevated CO2 Levels Directly Affect Human Cognition, New Harvard Study Shows

Exclusive: Elevated CO2 Levels Directly Affect Human Cognition, New Harvard Study Shows
By JOE ROMM
Oct 26 2015
<http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2015/10/26/3714853/carbon-dioxide-impair-brain/>

In a landmark public health finding, a new study from the Harvard School of Public Health finds that carbon dioxide (CO2) has a direct and negative impact on human cognition and decision-making. These impacts have been observed at CO2 levels that most Americans — and their children — are routinely exposed to today inside classrooms, offices, homes, planes, and cars. 

Carbon dioxide levels are inevitably higher indoors than the baseline set by the outdoor air used for ventilation, a baseline that is rising at an accelerating rate thanks to human activity, especially the burning of fossil fuels. So this seminal research has equally great importance for climate policy, providing an entirely new public health impetus for keeping global CO2 levels as low as possible.

In a series of articles, I will examine the implications for public health both today (indoors) as well as in the future (indoors and out) due to rising CO2 levels. This series is the result of a year-long investigation for Climate Progress and my new Oxford University Press book coming out next week, “Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know.” This investigative report is built on dozens of studies and literature reviews as well as exclusive interviews with many of the world’s leading experts in public health and indoor air quality, including authors of both studies.

What scientists have discovered about the impact of elevated carbon dioxide levels on the brain

Significantly, the Harvard study confirms the findings of a little-publicized 2012 Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) study, “Is CO2 an Indoor Pollutant? Direct Effects of Low-to-Moderate CO2 Concentrations on Human Decision-Making Performance.” That study found “statistically significant and meaningful reductions in decision-making performance” in test subjects as CO2 levels rose from a baseline of 600 parts per million (ppm) to 1000 ppm and 2500 ppm.

Both the Harvard and LBNL studies made use of a sophisticated multi-variable assessment of human cognition used by a State University of New York (SUNY) Upstate Medical University team, led by Dr. Usha Satish. Both teams raised indoor CO2 levels while leaving all other factors constant. The findings of each team were published in the peer-reviewed open-access journal Environmental Health Perspectives put out by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a part of NIH.

The new study, led by Dr. Joe Allen, Director of Harvard’s Healthy Buildings program, and Dr. John Spengler, Professor of Environmental Health and Human Habitation at Harvard, used a lower CO2 baseline than the earlier study. They found that, on average, a typical participant’s cognitive scores dropped 21 percent with a 400 ppm increase in CO2. Here are their astonishing findings for four of the nine cognitive functions scored in a double-blind test of the impact of elevated CO2 levels:

[snip]

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