The Effects of Different Gases on Office Space Air Quality

Busy office spaces like this can result in poor air quality as people breathe out CO2

Busy office spaces like this can result in poor air quality as people breathe out CO2
Image credit: Monkey Business Images /

The majority of people spend most of their working lives inside offices, and so the quality of the air that they breathe is of prime importance. Poor air quality can affect people's health and their productivity, meaning that an enlightened employer should be able to recognise that efforts to provide a good breathing atmosphere may have a positive effect on the balance sheet.

Providing good clean air to breathe need not be particularly expensive, although this will of course depend upon location. An office in a city centre will inevitably face different ventilation challenges than one on the edge of town, although even the latter may have to cope with external emissions from factories and agriculture as well as gases generated inside the office.

Fortunately, it is today quite straightforward to monitor indoor air quality and detect any unwanted gases, thanks to the efforts of sensor and detector manufacturers like SGX Sensortech. The major gases of concern are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), although carbon monoxide (CO) and carbon dioxide (CO2) should not be overlooked.

Major Gases Affecting Office Space Air Quality

Carbon monoxide is a colourless and odourless gas produced during inefficient combustion, and so is likely to be an office issue only where a gas-fired appliance such as a boiler is installed. As CO levels increase, people may begin to suffer headaches and impaired judgement, dizziness, nausea, unconsciousness, and in extreme circumstances even death.

As little as 800 parts per million (ppm) of CO in the air can be fatal, which is less than a tenth of one percent of the gases in a lungful of air. Any office (or other enclosed space where people live or work) where fuel is burned should have a simple CO monitor installed.

Carbon dioxide, on the other hand, is non-toxic but can still impair office workers' performance and wellbeing. Raised CO2 levels indoors are almost certainly the result of nothing more hazardous than people breathing, but can be a sign of inadequate ventilation. This is likely to become more of an issue in the future as buildings become better insulated and have fewer air changes as a result.

Much more likely to generate complaints to management are the class of gases known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. These include a wide range of chemicals that tend to have one thing in common – they smell. This is of course because they are volatile, and so are easily carried on the atmosphere and can be detected by the human nose.

Many VOCs found in a typical office are harmless and some may even be pleasant – like the smell of fresh coffee for example. While these will rarely be considered a problem, other VOCs may pose a risk to workers' health and should be monitored.

Common sources of these gases include cleaning products, solvents and adhesives, and pesticides sprayed onto ornamental plants. Gases may also be emitted from office machinery such as photocopiers, or outgassed from plastic furniture, carpets, and paint.

Photocopiers and other equipment may also emit ozone, a gas which is not classified as a VOC but may be harmful to people. It is an allotrope of oxygen, which may be familiar from its distinctive smell, and is especially of concern to people with respiratory conditions.

Any combination of these gases can give rise to the phenomenon sometimes referred to as 'sick building syndrome'. This phrase has come to mean an internal environment that workers feel is difficult or unpleasant to work in, and is mostly concerned with the quality of the air.

The 'normal' atmosphere on Earth is 99.9 per cent composed of just three gases, two of which are completely inert (the other being that essential for life, oxygen). This means that all of the other gases that we encounter would normally account for only 0.1 per cent, or 1000 parts per million, of the air we breathe.


This makes it all the more remarkable that these small portions of the atmosphere can be detected and measured with speed and reliability. Modern instruments are sensitive to parts per million or even parts per billion concentrations of gases, although not all chemicals can be detected in these vanishingly small amounts.

A new technology under development holds much promise for even more sensitive and wide ranging gas detection. The SENSIndoor project is using nanotechnology based intelligent sensor systems to create new breeds of gas detector for specific rooms and applications.

One important aspect of the programme, in which SGX Sensortech is a key partner, is to develop smart ventilation systems that will provide plentiful fresh air indoors without being wasteful of energy.

At present, one of the major causes of poor indoor air quality is an inadequate number of air changes, due to the cost of either heating or cooling the fresh air from outdoors before releasing it inside.

This information has been sourced, reviewed and adapted from materials provided by SGX Sensortech (IS) Ltd.

For more information on this source, please visit SGX Sensortech (IS) Ltd.


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