Harvard Study: Carbon Pollution Impairs Cognitive Function

blog-cognition and climate change-10.27.15This year, we’ve seen multiple studies and reports about the effect of climate change on public health. We’ve discussed how it can affect mental health as well, and the American Academy of Pediatrics just published a statement saying that children are especially vulnerable to climate impacts. Now, a new study from the Harvard School of Public Health finds that CO2 has a direct, adverse affect on human brain function. An increase in CO2 of 400 parts per million (ppm) caused cognitive scores to drop by 21 percent, seriously impairing judgment and decision-making.
CO2, or carbon dioxide, is the primary greenhouse gas emitted through human activity, and most of the CO2 in the air comes from burning fossil fuels. As this Climate Progress article explains, outdoor CO2 levels average 400 ppm globally, but can be 100 ppm higher or more in major cities – and those levels are rising. Inside buildings, where people are densely packed and spend most of their time, CO2 concentrations can be significantly higher, often 1,000 ppm or more. Since the Harvard study found a strong negative impact on cognition at 930 ppm, this is troubling.
However, there is something we can do about it. Switching to clean energy and curbing CO2 emissions will improve air quality and public health – and those are co-benefits all Americans can appreciate.

Exclusive: Elevated CO2 Levels Directly Affect Human Cognition, New Harvard Study Shows

By Joe Romm, Founding Editor of Climate Progress
In a landmark public health finding, a new study from the Harvard School of Public Health finds that carbon dioxide (CO2) has a direct and negative impact on human cognition and decision-making. These impacts have been observed at CO2 levels that most Americans — and their children — are routinely exposed to today inside classrooms, offices, homes, planes, and cars.
Carbon dioxide levels are inevitably higher indoors than the baseline set by the outdoor air used for ventilation, a baseline that is rising at an accelerating rate thanks to human activity, especially the burning of fossil fuels. So this seminal research has equally great importance for climate policy, providing an entirely new public health impetus for keeping global CO2 levels as low as possible.
In a series of articles, I will examine the implications for public health both today (indoors) as well as in the future (indoors and out) due to rising CO2 levels. This series is the result of a year-long investigation for Climate Progress and my new Oxford University Press book coming out next week, “Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know.” This investigative report is built on dozens of studies and literature reviews as well as exclusive interviews with many of the world’s leading experts in public health and indoor air quality, including authors of both studies.
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Image credit: Pixabay

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