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Inhaling What We Exhale: Is It Slowing Your Brain?

A new study finds that high carbon dioxide levels indoors may make for foggier decision making.

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indoor co2

There’s long been controversy over how carbon dioxide gas in the atmosphere impacts the climate. But what about CO2 indoors, is it dangerous to inhale so much of what we exhale?

Surprisingly, a new study suggests that it can impact how well you make decisions.

MORE: The Top 5 Hazards In Your Home

The amount of carbon dioxide in your home or office is determined by many factors: How big the area is, how many people occupy it, how close to traffic or a freeway you are, how many plants are inside, the type of plants and  how much air is coming in from the outdoors.

Indoor air is generally better quality when there’s more clean, fresh air coming in—the key word in this sentence is clean. Using digital air monitoring equipment, we see that densely-populated areas reach about 1000 ppm (parts per million) of CO2 or more.

At this level of 1000 ppm, people in an “office environment” experienced moderate declines in decision making, according to the study in Environmental Health Perspectives. (When the room was at 600 ppm, there’s was no poor decision making effect found. Phew.)

But when the level increased to 2500 ppm, decision making took an even bigger hit than at 1000 ppm. Subjects had hazy brains, testing poorly in seven out of nine scales of decision making!

QUIZ: How Healthy Is Your Lifestyle?

Interesting side note: The people immersed in the highest concentration of carbon dioxide has compromised decision making, yet high scores on the focused activity scale. Why could this be?

When people have trouble functioning in some capacity, they increase their focus on the small things, often compromising their ability to see the bigger picture. Think back to when you’ve been a little intoxicated. You may have become hyper-focused on one thing like walking, and then your other skills slipped.

When it comes to being intoxicated with carbon dioxide, there can be sneakier sources that up the CO2 concentrations. Watch out for combustion byproducts close to your home or office, like tobacco smoke, a leaky furnace or idle car.

Luckily, many times the simple solution is increased ventilation. Open a window (if you’re in a non-polluted region and not close to traffic, of course)!

Feeling especially cloudy or frustrated? Step outside (in a park away from dense traffic or industry) for a brisk walk. You won’t be running away from your problems, you’ll be one step closer to solving them! For one, it will add to your 10,000 steps a day goal for a fitter you. And you’ll come back with a youthful, rosy glow.

Most importantly, you’ll come back with a clearer head. Literally.    

MORE: Does Pollution Cause Obesity and Diabetes?

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