During campus safety tests upon the college community’s return to campus earlier this year, members of the anthropology department discovered high levels of CO2 at Wheatley Hall. Mass media spoke to Elizabeth Sweet, professor in the Department of Anthropology, about the department’s findings and the effects of high CO2 levels.
Question: How did this study come about?
Responnse: I wouldn’t necessarily call it a study; it’s really just that we were wondering as a security department during COVID-19 when it was clear we were all going to be coming back to campus in the fall. And one of the things we thought we could easily do as a service was to start monitoring or checking CO2 levels in some of our labs and offices that were already in use initially. [We] I just used this as a rough estimate of air flow and air quality, and from there, again, when we heard we were coming back to campus, we thought that it would be useful to start monitoring in classrooms as well, mainly to reassure us that things seemed safe. And so, we just invested in buying a few more – we already had a CO2 monitor, I think – and we just invested in buying a few more and started checking that out.
Question: What exactly did you find?
A: We were initially looking in our labs and offices that were in use the previous summer [the] Campus [community] I came back, and we actually found things were for the most part really good; that the CO2 levels were within the ideal range for indoor use. So at sea level here you would expect CO2 levels in the outside air.–as if it happens naturally in the air–so the exterior levels are around 400, and the interior levels, we found that a lot of offices and labs were only slightly above that, usually in the 500 range, or maybe in the 600 range, what is excellent. And so, we felt really good about it, that there was really good airflow and very good airflow in a lot of the places that we were testing, mainly in McCormack because it’s there. that is the anthropology department. But when we started looking at the classrooms after campus returned and classes started in the fall, we found more mixed results. […]
We tested one at the university [Hall] but it was excellent; CO2 levels were only 500 during the course, and you would expect that when a room is particularly crowded with people, the CO2 levels will go up, but there are still standards in terms of what’s considered ideal or acceptable for CO2 levels in indoor settings. And again, we found that some of the classrooms, like most of the classrooms we tested at McCormack, were also within acceptable ranges, so at or below 800. It depends on who you are looking at. and the standard you’re looking for in terms of numbers, but 800 is a bit ideal, and up to 1000 are sort of acceptable levels of CO2 for indoor air, especially in educational settings. And then on top of that you start to see that it’s associated with negative results–such as negative learning outcomes, as well as potentially certain symptoms such as headaches or fatigue. And the real place we were seeing issues was Wheatley, so several of the classrooms we tested there had CO2 levels that during lessons–especially if the door was closed, but sometimes even with the door open–were going quite high, like in the 1,300, 1,400 or even higher, so significantly more than what is considered acceptable.
Question: What was your role in all of this?
A: So most of the time I’m just a data collector for this project. So we’ve set up a small COVID-19 team or COVID-19 task force for the anthropology department just to help be kind of a point person to keep track of everything COVID-19 now. that we’re back on campus. And so, one of the things we kept track of was those CO2 readings, and especially as we realized that some of the classrooms that many of us taught in, in Wheatley, had readings. high, we started doing more generalized testing within the department. So, we are asking more and more professors to participate in readings during their lessons, and to take them not just once, but several times in several lessons over the weeks to see if there have been any changes in the course. over time and things like that. So most of my role has been to help collect and track this kind of data.
Question: Are you still collecting this data or have you tested what you think is sufficient?
A: I think we feel like we’ve kind of stopped testing for now. Part of what we do at this point is try to determine the best use of this data. So we worked a bit with the facilities and the OEHS on campus to alert them when we find a classroom that appears to have a high reading, so they can go in and do their own monitoring because we’re just by doing this very unofficial surveillance. And they really have to use a monitor that will follow an entire day or days and log the data so that they can really see what’s going on, and when things are high and when they’re not in a given classroom. So we’ve tried to work with them a bit with that, and they’ve been helpful in trying to alleviate the issue in individual classes when we alert them to an issue.
But I think one of the things we see with what we can tell from our data is that there are actually a number of parts that are problematic and that kind of indicated to us–and we are not air quality experts–but it tells us looking at the data that there may be a more widespread issue with the airflow in Wheatley in particular. Which is not surprising, because it is an old building. But we also know that they have replaced the air filters with these MERV 13 air filters which are recommended during times of COVID-19 and are definitely up to standard in terms of what they are supposed to do for the filtration of. the air. So, we don’t know what kind of impact this has on the airflows; there are all kinds of things we don’t know, and part of what we expect in terms of what to do with our data is [that] the MTA has contracted with an outside group to carry out more extensive air quality tests, beyond CO2. And so, in part, we want to see what they find and how this new data might help us better interpret our CO2 readings.
One thing I will say is that we have tried to research what CO2 tells us about the overall risk. So, I mentioned that it’s associated with things like poorer learning outcomes and potential symptoms like headaches and fatigue, and we think those are really important. Our students and professors and all of us shouldn’t have to try to teach and learn in non-ideal environments. [and] that could be fixed. But our initial motivation for doing this surveillance was entirely related to the COVID-19 risk, so we tried to research the relationship between CO2 and something like the transmission of COVID-19 in an indoor environment. MIT has some useful algorithms and things that they’ve put in place to try and connect those two things, and from what we can tell–mostly because the university upgraded these MERV 13 filters–it appears that the fact that everyone wears masks on campus and that we have fairly good air filtration, that the risk of COVID-19 transmission associated with even high CO2 levels in these rooms is likely to be rather weak. So I think we’re at this point–again, assuming we all continued to wear a mask–-I think we’re not particularly concerned that it’s a COVID-19 risk, it’s more like ‘hey, we found out, unsurprisingly, that we have aging infrastructure on the ground. campus, and that we might want to think about what the consequences of this might be and what we can do about it in terms of improving air quality for everyone. ‘
Question: Should students, staff, and faculty care?
A: Well, we don’t see CO2 levels that are in a toxic range, or as if it’s going to hurt you; it’s not that sort of thing. So I think the concern is even more that we have a less than ideal learning environment in some of these rooms at Wheatley. And to that extent, I think we should be concerned about that, because we’re meant to be a health promotion institution and we want to provide a good learning environment for our students; they deserve it, and in that regard, I think it’s also a question of fairness. So to that extent, I think we should be concerned about it.