When you’re in a closed environment such as an office – you’re actually at risk to a surprising number of ailments that weren’t largely understood until the end of the last century. You’d think that being surrounded by four walls, being in a heated (sometimes far too hot!) building would make you safer and healthier than people working in more hazardous environments. The statistics are quite surprising, but we’ll explore what we know about offices first.
A study by Dr Bill Wolverton in 1989 suggests that the manufacturing processes of office furniture means that throughout their life, the very desks and chairs we use are emitting chemicals that are potentially hazardous to us. Chemicals such as Benzene and Formaldehyde (both nasty in their own ways) are released in low levels by a surprising number of products we’ve become familiar with. In large quantities, or over time, these levels of compounds in the air build up and cause us harm. Given that we as humans also emit carbon dioxide, he suggests humans should also be regarded as sources of indoor air pollution.
The symptoms suffered became known as “sick building syndrome” and it was estimated at the time to affect nearly a third of new buildings. The consequences to the workforce and the wider economy must have been vast, but largely misunderstood or ignored.
NASA has been studying closed ecological systems for decades now, with the aim of finding the optimum solution for long term space travel. Previous studies had shown that poorly or artificially ventilated buildings showed the highest risks of sick building syndrome, raising the importance of the study for both air conditioned offices and spacecraft alike.
The great news is that they’ve found numerous plants that are able to significantly reduce the number of harmful chemicals in the air. Whilst some plants are more suited than others for particular chemicals, the overall benefits are striking and most likely to have an impact in the average urban workspace.