Study Title:

Effects of pollution from personal computers on perceived air quality, SBS symptoms and productivity in offices

Study Abstract

In groups of six, 30 female subjects were exposed for 4.8 h in a low-polluting office to each of two conditions--the presence or absence of 3-month-old personal computers (PCs). These PCs were placed behind a screen so that they were not visible to the subjects. Throughout the exposure the outdoor air supply was maintained at 10 l/s per person. Under each of the two conditions the subjects performed simulated office work using old low-polluting PCs. They also evaluated the air quality and reported Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) symptoms. The PCs were found to be strong indoor pollution sources, even after they had been in service for 3 months. The sensory pollution load of each PC was 3.4 olf, more than three times the pollution of a standard person. The presence of PCs increased the percentage of people dissatisfied with the perceived air quality from 13 to 41% and increased by 9% the time required for text processing. Chemical analyses were performed to determine the pollutants emitted by the PCs. The most significant chemicals detected included phenol, toluene, 2-ethylhexanol, formaldehyde, and styrene. The identified compounds were, however, insufficient in concentration and kind to explain the observed adverse effects. This suggests that chemicals other than those detected, so-called 'stealth chemicals', may contribute to the negative effects.

Practical implications: PCs are an important, but hitherto overlooked, source of pollution indoors. They can decrease the perceived air quality, increase SBS symptoms and decrease office productivity. The ventilation rate in an office with a 3-month-old PC would need to be increased several times to achieve the same perceived air quality as in a low-polluting office with the PC absent. Pollution from PCs has an important negative impact on the air quality, not only in offices but also in many other spaces, including homes. PCs may have played a role in previously published studies on SBS and perceived air quality, where PCs were overlooked as a possible pollution source in the indoor environment. The fact that the chemicals identified in the office air and in the chamber experiments were insufficient to explain the adverse effects observed during human exposures illustrates the inadequacy of the analytical chemical methods commonly used in indoor air quality investigations. For certain chemicals the human senses are much more sensitive than the chemical methods routinely used in indoor air quality investigations. The adverse effects of PC-generated air pollutants could be reduced by modifications in the manufacturing process, increased ventilation, localized PC exhaust, or personalized ventilation systems.

Study Information

Indoor Air . 2004 Jun;14(3):178-87. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0668.2004.00218.x.

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