Office air sometimes contains higher levels of carbon dioxide — here’s what happened when we did a test

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Hollis Johnson

Some modern workplaces have gotten so efficiently air-tight and crowded that they could be making us less productive.

That’s partly our colleagues’ fault: Adults breathe out a continuous (yet tiny) stream of CO2, which adds up to around 2 pounds every day.

On the ground outside, carbon dioxide concentrations typically hover between 250 and 500 parts per million, depending on how much pollution is around. Indoors, CO2 concentrations can be a bit higher, though it varies from place to place.

But extra CO2 can have a measurable effect on how well people accomplish cognitively high-level tasks at work.

A recent study by researchers from Harvard, SUNY and Syracuse suggests that when people breathe in too much carbon dioxide at their desks, their performance suffers. That jives with what brain researchers know about carbon dioxide: more CO2 causes brain metabolism to plummet and neural activity to take a dive.

That study got the science team at Business Insider wondering how much CO2 is in the air we’re breathing at work. So we conducted a test in our office to determine whether we, too, are being impacted by elevated carbon dioxide levels.


In the study, 24 workers spent six days working at different CO2 concentrations. The participants were plucked from a range of professions, including engineers, marketers and programmers. The results from the small group suggested that even a slightly elevated CO2 level can have an impact on how well people work.

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K2 Space/flickr

The researchers tested the participants with a range of decision-making tests at the end of each day.

On some days, workers went about their business in rooms where CO2 was circulating at 550 parts per million. On others, the concentration hovered at 945 ppm, and on the rest, they subjected participants to a high-carbon dioxide condition, at 1400 ppm. (The Centers for Disease Control generally considers places with CO2 levels above 1200 ppm ‘inadequately ventilated.’)

Study participants working under the heaviest concentration of CO2 performed 50% worse on cognitive tasks than they did in the low 550 ppm scenario. And when the workers were working in rooms with the medium CO2 concentrations (945 ppm), their cognitive test scores were 15% lower.

In other words, the researchers found that a little extra CO2 can make you act a lot dumber.


Indoor carbon dioxide became a problem in the 1970s, when designers began making buildings more airtight. People started reporting feeling ill and less productive at work. The term ‘sick building syndrome’ was born.

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Office workers at the National Westminster Bank in London on July 18th, 1979.
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Aubrey Hart / Getty

Exposure to higher-than-average levels of carbon dioxide, concentrations upwards of 2%, can leave exposed individuals feeling faint, breathless, and dizzy.

In more serious cases, taking in too much carbon dioxide can put people in a coma or kill them.


Ultimately, designers and architects adopted new building ventilation standards to make sure that there’s enough fresh air indoors.

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Hollis Johnson

We were desperate to know how our office fared.


First we tested the CO2 concentrations in a conference room.

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Here’s our very official, massive syringe that sucks in air to test it for CO2.
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Hollis Johnson

We expected that the CO2 level in an empty, confined space like this might differ from our open-office newsroom, where we work and breathe together all day. Because there aren’t as many people in conference rooms ‘outgassing’ into the air, we figured there might be less CO2.

Then again, a meeting room can hold lots of groups throughout a busy day, and all those people expel carbon dioxide along with their opinions and presentations. A poorly ventilated conference room might be a perfect spot for some higher-than-ideal CO2 concentrations to brew.


Our test involved sucking air into a syringe and then pushing it out into a CO2-measuring vile built for greenhouses. As it turned out, our conference room air was performance-friendly.

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Hollis Johnson

CO2 concentrations hovered around 300 parts per million – about the same concentration of carbon dioxide found in the great outdoors. Very conducive to good work.


But we weren’t satisfied with a single result. So we headed into the middle of the crowded newsroom for a second test.

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Hollis Johnson

Roughly 100 BI employees were hard at work and breathing steadily.


Fortunately, those results also turned out to be out well below worrisome CO2 levels.

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Hollis Johnson

There was a little more CO2 wafting around our desks – slightly less than 500 ppm – but that’s still an acceptable level for work.

Clearly, we can’t blame any lack of productivity on our office air.