Can Carbon Dioxide Make Us Stupid?
Changing the climate—and the classroom.
Posted Nov 15, 2012
What’s In the Air
Welcome, sulphur dioxide
Hello, carbon monoxide
The air, the air is everywhere
Breathe deep, while you sleep, breathe deep
It’s been a while since the musical “Hair” expressed its fragment of sixties’ zeitgeist. And as much as its message of peace, love, and happiness looks dated in our present political climate, so are its designated culprits.
In those days people were very worried about sulphur and nitrogen pollution. The Clean Air Act helped fix that. Now it’s carbon dioxide that creates concern.
Identified as a powerful agent of global climate change which every 15,000 years or so rapidly remakes weather, few think of carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Yet CO2 may make people – particularly students and office workers – more stupid. And if the data from the Lawrence Berkeley Livermore Laboratory can be believed, CO2 can cause those who labor indoors to think poorly and unevenly – and have little or no idea their performance has declined.
Carbon dioxide enhanced global warming may push great cities under the sea. It may make future billions incapable of using long built water, electrical, and sewage infrastructure, leading to mass dislocation and political havoc. In the meantime, we have to think about what else CO2 does to us – inside our homes, schools and workspaces.
Much of the public is primarily worried about outdoor pollution. Increasing rates of lung cancer in non-smokers appear to be related to higher levels of industrial pollutants throughout the environment.
But much of pollution’s killing force lies inside buildings. It’s not just crystal meth labs that murder people through carbon monoxide and fires. The major indoor pollutant is often second hand–even third hand–cigarette smoke.
Recent British data showed much higher rates of asthma and respiratory disease among kids in buildings where people smoked. The numbers were high even when none of their parents or siblings smoked.
Smoke gets in your eyes. It also rapidly emerges between walls and floorboards – and makes kids sick.
It’s not entirely conclusive, but close, that banning public smoking cut those heart attacks and deaths.
Of course there are other sources of health worry. They include what people exhale – carbon dioxide.
The Withering of World Art
The Caves at Lascaux in France are considered some of mankind’s greatest early art.
But you don’t get to see them anymore. Human borne pollution has destroyed many of the 17,000 year old paintings.
And now the Vatican, fresh from scandals involving banking and papal valets, has admitted another worry – the slow destruction of the Sistine Chapel.
It took Michelangelo, Botticelli, Perugino and others many years to paint the remarkable ceiling and high walls of the hall where popes are elected and elevated. Yet tourists appear to be destroying them rapidly.
Why? Five million people are rushed through the Chapel every year. Their humid, CO2 laced breath contributes to the deterioration of the paintings.
Of course, ventilation can be improved. But we’re talking about the Vatican. And not everyone is willing to spring for the 220 euros necessary for a more quiet, “private” tour.
Carbon Dioxide – the Enemy of Strategic Thought?
As reported in Science News, researchers at Lawrence Berkeley Livermore were intrigued by reports that students in tightly enclosed classrooms stayed away from class and did not do as well as others. Could stuffy rooms make me people dumb?
Their experiment was to let 22 young adults do what they normally like to do in enclosed places – play video games, surf the Net, watch TV. The exception this time – short periods where they had to play a role playing game where they directed an organization through pitfalls and crises.
Starting at 600 parts per million carbon dioxide, a “good” indoor number (outside air is generally 350-400 ppm), the researchers jacked up the carbon dioxide level to 1000 ppm – also considered “good” by ventilation technologists – and then 2500 ppm – a number easily achieved in winter classrooms.
What happened? People performed worse – appreciably worse – at 1000 ppm. They were awful when the CO2 level hit 2500 ppm.
Note that the performance measures were not the standardized multiple choice tests beloved of state legislators, but more complicated tests of thinking and strategy. And as the carbon dioxide level went up, the young people played badly – so badly the researchers were shocked.
Controlling energy costs and decreasing global warming by tightly enclosing classrooms and workrooms may perversely make people think less intelligently. Carbon dioxide does not just cause global climate change, but human mental change.
Sometimes you just have to get outside. Open the window and breathe the air.
Or convince your engineers to ventilate buildings well. Both your brain power and your health should benefit.