• Does Air Pollution Ruin Productivity?

Air Monitoring

Does Air Pollution Ruin Productivity?

Jan 26 2022

This article is based upon a talk delivered by Professor Francis Pope, entitled Air Pollution and Cognition – The Next Big Headache?, to the 81st Gas Analysis and Sensing Group Colloquium: Following the Science? Exposure Limits, Toxicology and Human Health. 


The World Health Organisation recently lowered the thresholds for safe levels of exposure to air pollution, particularly PM2.5 and PM10. (For the uninitiated, those are particles, or particulate matter, measuring less than 2.5 micrometres and less than 10 micrometres in diameter, respectively). For a year’s worth of exposure, the concentration of PM2.5 should not exceed 5 µg/mg (down from 10 µg/mg) and for PM10, it’s 15 µg/mg (down from 20 µg/mg). 

These reductions register an increase in concerns regarding the health-effects of air pollution. Currently, air pollution is considered to be the leading environmental contributor to global ill-health. One of the largest studies of air pollution as a risk factor reported that certain levels of exposure to PM2.5 claim anywhere between 4 and 7 million lives around the globe each year. Usually, known properties of certain air pollutants, like the promotion carcinogenic processes, cardiovascular complications and respiratory deficiencies, are blamed for the negative outcomes in populations. But there may be another culprit, more subtle, harder to pin down... 

Recently, though, two experiments conducted by Dr. M. A. Shehab and Professor Francis Pope at the University of Birmingham managed to crack the case. In the first, the cohort were separated into groups, taking their tests in unventilated rooms on one side of a screen, behind which a candle either burned or did not. In the second, the separated groups gave their answers in a building beside a busy commuting route, with some of the groups’ rooms sealed against the outside and the others exposed to the fumes of the passing traffic. Across both experiments, the results were the same. There was an inverse correlation between performance on tests of cognitive ability and exposure to particulate matter. 

The study joins a chorus of scientific voices raising the alarm about the neurotoxicity of air pollution. It has been suggested that particulate matter might reduce the flow of oxygen to the brain, that certain pollutants cause inflammation and disrupt the blood-brain barrier, and even that systemic inflammation as an immuno-response to the inhalation of particulates might impair cognition in the short-term. What’s for certain, however, is the much-publicised link between air pollution and dementia, a link which reportedly accounts for 15% of dementia-related deaths worldwide. 

One of the immediate problems that we confront, of course, is the effect of this cognitive impairment on productivity – especially as most of the cities in the UK where many of us work do not have clean air, according to the World Health Organisation’s new guidelines. Well, actually, there’s a pretty solid answer. A study by Levy and Yagil have concluded decisively that air pollution impacts productivity by comparing the decision-making skills of securities traders at various different exchanges with different particulate concentration. 

For regular news and updates on air pollution, keep your eyes glued to Envirotech Online – in fact, take a look at our recent article on why Employees Want Better Air Quality


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