During the campus safety test when the university community returned to campus earlier this year, members of the anthropology department discovered high levels of CO2 at Wheatley Hall. The mass media spoke to Elizabeth Sweet, a professor in the Department of Anthropology, about the department’s findings and the effects of high CO2 levels.
Question: How was this study born?
Responnse: I wouldn’t necessarily call it a study; it’s really fair that we as a department were wondering about safety during COVID-19 when it was clear that we were all going to be back on campus in the fall. And one of the things that we thought we could easily do as a department was to start monitoring or checking CO2 levels in, initially, some of our labs and offices that were already in use. [We] just used it as a rough estimate of airflow and air quality, and from there, again, when we found out we were coming back to campus, we figured that It would also be useful to start monitoring classrooms, largely 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.
Q: What did you find, exactly?
A: Initially, we were looking through our labs and offices that had been used during the summer before [the] Campus [community] came back, and we actually found things were mostly really good; CO2 levels were in the ideal range for indoors. So at sea level here you would expect outdoor air CO2 levels—as if naturally occurring in the air—so the exterior levels are around 400, and the interior levels we found 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 that, that there was really good airflow and good airflow in a lot of the places that we were testing, mostly in McCormack because that’s where is the Department of Anthropology. But when we started looking at classrooms once campus returned and classes began 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 class, and you would expect that when a room is particularly full of people, CO2 levels will rise, but there are still standards in terms of what is considered as ideal or acceptable for CO2 levels in interior 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 800 or less. It depends on who you’re looking at and what standard you’re looking into in terms of numbers, but 800 is kind of ideal, and up to 1000 is kind 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 outcomes—such as negative learning outcomes, as well as potentially certain symptoms such as headaches or fatigue. And the real place where we were seeing problems 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 up to 1300, 1400 or even higher, so significantly higher than what is considered acceptable.
Q: 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 put together a little COVID-19 team or COVID-19 task force for the anthropology department just to help be kind of a go-to person to keep track of anything COVID-19 related now that we’re back on campus. And so one of the things that we were keeping track of was these CO2 readings, and especially when we realized that some of the classrooms that a lot of us were teaching in, at Wheatley, had high readings, we started to do more widespread testing within the department. So we are asking more and more teachers to participate in readings during their classes, and to take them not just once, but several times in several classes over the weeks to see if there have been any changes to the over time and things like that. So most of my role has been to help collect and track that kind of data.
Q: 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’re doing at this point is trying to figure out the best use of that data. So we’ve been working a bit with facilities and OEHS on campus to alert them when we find a classroom that seems to have a high reading, so they can come in and do their own monitoring, because we’re right there -in doing this very unofficial surveillance. And they really need to use a monitor that will track over an entire day or multiple days and record the data so they can really see what’s going on, and when things are high and when they’re not in any given classroom . So we tried to work with them a bit on that, and they were helpful in trying to mitigate the issue in individual classrooms when we alerted them to an issue.
But I think one of the things that 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 told us—and we are not air quality experts—but it tells us by looking at the data that there may be a more widespread problem with the airflow at Wheatley specifically. Which is not surprising, since it is an old building. But we also know that they replaced the air filters with these MERV 13 air filters which are recommended during times of COVID-19 and are definitely up to the right standards in terms of what they’re supposed to do for filtration air. So we don’t know what kind of impact that has on airflows; there are all sorts of things that we don’t know, and part of what we expect in terms of what to do with our data is [that] the MTA contracted an outside group to come in and do more widespread air quality testing 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 overall risk. So, I mentioned that it’s associated with things like lower learning outcomes and potential symptoms like headaches and fatigue, and we think those are really important. Our students and our teachers and all of us should not have to try to teach and learn in less than ideal environments. [and] it could be fixed. But our initial motivation for doing this monitoring was entirely related to the risk of COVID-19, 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 they’ve put together to try to tie those two things together, and from what we can tell—especially because the university upgraded these MERV 13 filters—it seems that the fact that everyone wears masks on campus and that we have pretty good air filtration, that the risk of COVID-19 transmission associated with even high CO2 levels in those rooms is probably rather weak. So I think we’re at this point—again, assuming we all continue to wear a mask—-I think we’re not particularly concerned that this is a COVID-19 risk, it’s more like “hey, we found out, unsurprisingly, that we have aging infrastructure on campus, and that we might want to think about what the consequences of that might be and what we can do about it in terms of improving air quality for everyone.
Q: Should students, staff and faculty be concerned?
A: Well, we don’t see CO2 levels that are in a toxic range, or like it’s going to harm you; it’s not that kind of thing. So I think the concern again is that we have a less than ideal learning environment in some of these rooms at Wheatley. And to that extent, I think we should care about that, because we’re supposed to be a health-promoting 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 matter of fairness. So to that extent, I think we should be concerned about that.