The pollution outside your office window affects your work in a big way


shanghai smog china


A man wears a mask while walking on a bridge during a hazy day in Shanghai's financial district of Pudong, December 5, 2013.

Imagine a city without cars.


Pedestrians stroll along idyllic boulevards. Cyclists pedal without fear. Both feel no need to worry about a two-ton hunk of metal putting their lights out.

That's the utopian dream I wrote about Thursday when I suggested that New York City should ban personal cars.

But the full cost of a city full of gas-guzzlers doesn't just take into how nice it would be to walk down the street without fear. There's also a significant body of research about how much pollution costs society.

And now we have a new cost: Pollution - from cars and manufacturing - seems to cut down on how productive we are as office workers.


A 2014 working paper from researchers at Columbia USC and at UC San Diego finds that labor productivity falls when air pollution rises. Conversely, as air-pollution levels have decreased in the past few decades, American productivity has likely increased.

That's right. It seems that the pollution outside your window can affect the amount of work you get done, even when you're inside.

The paper says that "there is ample reason to believe that modest levels of pollution may impair performance through changes in respiratory, cardiovascular, and cognitive function."

The ability to think clearly is important for office workers. If pollution affects that ability, that's a widespread economic problem.

The researchers did their study by measuring the amount of "fine particulate matter" referred to in their writing as PM2.5. They define it as "a harmful pollutant that easily penetrates indoor settings."


They conducted their experiment inside a pear-packing factory in California, where productivity is fairly easily measured (how many boxes a worker packs per hour), and found that a change of just 10 units of PM2.5 "significantly decreases worker productivity by roughly 6 percent."

They also found that this particular pollutant "begins to affect productivity at levels well below current US air quality standards."

Obviously, if this affects American workers, at relatively low levels of pollutants, this has huge implications for China, which has a massive pollution problem. Sure enough, there is an even more recent Chinese paper on the same subject, which also found a huge pollution effect on productivity.

The Chinese researchers say that labor productivity in 190 cities in China would likely rise by about 4% per year, if the amount of fine-particle pollution in the air was cut to 25 micrograms per cubic meter. That figure - 25 micrograms per cubic meter of air - is what the World Health Organization deems healthy "for human exposure sustained over a period of 24 hours," says the paper.

But in Chinese cities the pollution levels are often much higher.


At the US Embassy in Beijing, the number of fine particles in the air was measured at an average of 129 micrograms per cubic meter, from December 2013 and February 2014.

In other places the average was as high as 221.

In the course of the study, the researchers found the amount of ambient fine particles in the air they measured to be between 10 and 773 micrograms per cubic meter. That variation, they say, is "an order of magnitude larger than what is observed in the rich world today."

The US and China are two of the biggest economies in the world. Both have massive numbers of people working inside in smoggy cities. Just imagine what those economies might look like without pollution hampering people's ability to do their jobs efficiently.

Forget that the robots might be coming to take our jobs: Manufacturing the robots is killing our productivity.


[h/t Michael Madowitz]

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