Climate change might make the weather outside exceedingly weird in the coming decades, but at least you can always escape to the air conditioned comfort of your office, right?

Not so fast, suggests a fascinating (if fairly depressing) recently article on one possible effect of climate change you probably haven't considered before -- indoor environments. How could altered weather patterns have any impact at all inside buildings? Through the strange phenomenon of "sick building syndrome," writes Joshua Rapp Learn on Smithsonian.com (hat tip to the always excellent Science of Us blog for the pointer).

How can a building be sick? It can't of course, but doctors have identified a cluster of symptoms that are caused by the conditions inside office buildings, including headaches and dry eyes. This is sick building syndrome, and it turns out that climate change will probably make the problem worse -- with some unfortunate effects on productivity.

Itchier and sleepier

Hotter days will obviously lead to higher utility bills as workers crank up the AC, but that shouldn't be the only concern among business owners, reports Rapp Learn.

"The changing climate may also set off a whole host of other problems for those desk-bound among us. Higher carbon levels could induce fatigue and affect decision making while mold and higher ozone levels that react with a number of chemicals used in common cleaning products can cause irritating symptoms like runny noses, dry eyes and other problems," he writes. Ick.

Citing recent research on the subject, Rapp Learn explains that the main issue is that high CO2 levels tend to make people sleepy. That can cause a dent in worker productivity, but it's also bad news for educators -- drowsy students are slower to learn.

What's the solution?

The in-depth article goes into lots more detail about how older buildings, real estate economics, and high temperatures can mix and become an unhealthy cocktail. But it also delves into the main challenge of solving the problem -- while employers bear the costs of less productive workers, construction firms and building owners are the ones who will need to shell out for the improvements that can alleviate the symptoms of sick building syndrome.

What's to be done? The Building Owners and Managers Association, a professional organization that recommends standards for building construction, has apparently "set up an energy performance contracting framework that can lead building owners and the businesses to create cost-sharing systems for making energy improvements," says Rapp Learn.

For larger employers and those particularly concerned about the issue, that might be worth checking out, but for smaller businesses the best takeaway is probably awareness. If you know that office conditions can cause droopy eyelids, you'll have an idea what to check for if you find yourself perpetually sluggish at work. And that could be the foundation for a constructive conversation with your building owner (or office designer) about what to do about the issue.

Published on: May 16, 2016
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