Healthy Office: Improve The Air

Do you sometimes feel that the air you breathe in your office contributes to feeling tired, drowsy and irritable?

At the end of the day, do you have itching eyes, a dry throat, and a stuffy nose that go away when you leave your office?

If you experience these symptoms, you may be sensitive to the multitude of chemical compounds that permeate our work environment. At times the air we breathe affects our health and may even cause computer hardware failure.

Materials and equipment in office buildings and homes usually contain a chemical brew of volatile organic compounds (e.g., formaldehyde, benzene and tricholorethylene) that are outgassed from paper, inks, office equipment, furniture, carpet, paints, wall coverings, cleaning materials, and floor tiles. This is particularly prevalent in new or newly renovated buildings where paints, carpets and sealants release various gasses, especially during the first few months after installation. (Ever noticed that after remodeling, carpeting or painting you nose is congested and your eyes are irritated?) These gasses often stay in the rooms where there is limited air circulation due to sealed buildings or closed windows during winter or summer. Added to this brew are other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that we personally supply, such as chemicals from dry cleaned clothing, perfumes, soaps, shampoos and deodorants. Copiers and laser printers may add to, and activate, this mix by producing ozone. Consequently, indoor air pollution can sometimes be greater than outdoor

In addition, between 33 to 37 percent of people who work at the computer experience eye irritation. This computer vision syndrome includes itching, burning or dry eyes and is often caused by an interaction between indoor air pollution, ergonomics and continuous focus on the monitor. While looking at the screen (or is it staring??), our blinking rate is about 70% less than when we are relaxed. In addition, looking straight ahead or upwards at the monitor may decrease blinking and cause corneal surface drying especially when air conditioning or heating lowers the humidity.

Increase humidity and reduce indoor pollution by rapidly outgassing the unhealthy chemicals in your office, and use living plants to mop up the harmful VOCs. Take charge and make your office a more pleasant place to work when you increase air quality and breathe more fresh air.


1. Speed up outgassing after renovation or installation of newly installed furniture or carpets. Turn the heat as high as possible for 24 to 48 hours to speed up the outgassing process. The warmer the room, the faster the gasses are released. During this time period be sure that there is NO fire danger and that the room is not occupied by people or pets. Afterwards, ventilate the room completely.

2. Place plants in your office and home to help clear the indoor pollution and remove the volatile organic compounds. The following plants all mop-up VOCs and some gobble up specific chemicals in this brew. #

  • Azaleas, rubber plants, tulips, poinsettia, philodendron and bamboo palms (absorbs formaldehyde)
  • Areca palm (absorbs toluene)
  • Lady palm (absorbs ammonia)
  • Peace lily and chrysanthemum (absorbs acetone, methanol, trichlorethylene, benzene, ethylacetate)

3. Adjust the humidity in the room. If the humidity is less than 20%, which often occurs with air conditioning and heating, your eyes dry out much more quickly, especially when wearing contacts. Bring moisture to your office with a humidifier or plants. Plants not only increase humidity and absorb VOCs, their green color helps to relax your eyes. In addition, to decrease eye symptoms, adjust the monitor so that it is equal to or lower than the height of your eyebrows and increase your blinking rate. Train yourself to blink gently at the end of every paragraph or with every mouse click. Blink at least once or twice a minute.

4. Explore and implement ways to improve the air quality.

  • Ventilate your work area (if possible open windows or doors).
  • Move copier/laser printers to a well-ventilated space and/or place an exhaust fan near the copier or printer.
  • Turn off copiers or laser printers when not in use (purchase new equipment which is energy saving and shuts down when not in use).
  • Reduce the amount of fragrances you wear.
  • Aerate–before wearing–dry cleaned clothing. Hang them outside or in the bathroom with the fan going for 24 hours.
  • Install an air purifier/filter.

Finally, take a walk at lunch or ask coworkers to have a walking meeting so that you can get out in the fresh air especially if you work in a sealed environment. Remember, a breath of fresh air a day keeps the doctor away.

For detailed instructions and information to stay healthy at the computer see:

For more information and detailed instructions, see: Peper, E. & Gibney, K.H. (2000).
Healthy Computing with Muscle Biofeedback, A Practical Manual for Preventing Repetitive Motion Injury. Woerden, Netherlands: BFE. Available in the USA at Work Solutions USA, 2236 Derby Street, Berkeley, CA 94705. Telephone: 510 841 7227; Fax: 510 658 9801.

Adapted from Healthy Computing Email Tip 228: Improve the Air produced by E. Peper and K.H. Gibney, Work Solutions USA, 2236 Derby Street, Berkeley, CA 94705.

#For more information see: How To Grow Fresh Air by Bill Wolverton, Penguin, 1997.

Erik Peper, Ph.D., is a professor and director of the Institute for Holistic Healing Studies at San Francisco State University, director of Work Solutions USA and co-author of Healthy Computing with Muscle Biofeedback. Email:

Katherine Hughes Gibney provides workplace training and consultation in injury prevention. She is also director of Work Solutions USA and co-author of Healthy Computing with Muscle Biofeedback. Email:

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Written by Katherine HughesGibney

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