Does air pollution make your staff less productive?

A US education study suggests that breathing better air boosts performance.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 10 Jan 2020

Bosses are constantly looking for clever hacks to make their staff more productive. 

A recently published study into the impact of installing air filters into classrooms suggests that helping them breathe cleaner air could also boost performance. 

In the wake of the 2015 Aliso Canyon gas leak in Southern California, pressure from parents and school bodies led the Southern California Gas Company to install plug-in air filters in every school with a five-mile radius of the methane leak. 

Here’s where it gets interesting. Due to the fact that methane is lighter than air, and thus dissipates into the atmosphere quickly, by the time the filters were placed in the schools some months after the leak, the outside air quality had returned to normal pre-leak levels. The filters simply cleaned the same air that children in other schools in the valley, which hadn’t had them fitted, were exposed to. 

This allowed New York University’s Michael Gilraine to compare test scores from students who breathed the filtered air against those who didn’t and how these changed before and after the installation. Gilraine recorded a 0.20 and 0.18 standard deviation improvement in Maths and English test scores respectively, in schools that received the filters compared to those without.

There are some caveats in the test results, particularly the fact that some students switched school midway through - discussed in the study here - but generally it suggests that air quality has an impact on students’ performance and it could presumably have a similar impact on workers. 

It’s not the first study to suggest a negative link between air pollution and cognition. While air filters alone won’t lead to high performance, it’s certainly food for thought for businesses looking to freshen up their wellbeing efforts. 

There are general health benefits too. According to the WHO’s latest Global Ambient Air Quality Database, as many as 9 out of 10 people globally breathe highly polluted air, and at least 30 UK towns and cities including Manchester, London and Swansea exceed pollution limits.

It's also relatively cheap. In total, 1,756 were placed in 18 schools at an average cost of around $1000 (£765) per class.


Image credit: Aaron Foster via Getty Images

Stephen Jones

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