Poor Air Quality Lowers
Worker Productivity In New England
Contact: Lori Wright
UNH Media Relations
August 19, 2004
DURHAM, N.H.– Poor outdoor air quality lowers worker productivity,
and most people do not change their behavior despite suffering
from a host of symptoms, including breathing trouble. These are
among the initial key findings of a survey conducted by researchers
at the University of New Hampshire that is evaluating the impact
of outdoor air quality on worker productivity in New England.
“We expected to see an impact. However, our initial survey
data suggests a stronger impact than anticipated,” said Ross
Gittell, the James R. Carter Professor of Management at the UNH
Whittemore School of Business and Economics and the primary investigator
for the study.
UNH researchers have partnered with several large New England employers
to explore air quality’s potential impact on worker productivity.
Study participants include members of the UNH and Durham communities,
and volunteers with Cisco Systems, Exeter Health Resources, Wentworth-Douglass
Hospital, Portsmouth Regional Hospital, and New Hampshire’s
Departments of Environmental Services, and Health and Human Services.
The study continues through the summer. The final report will be
provided to the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration
The researchers include an interdisciplinary team of UNH business,
economics and atmospheric science faculty. In conjunction with the
UNH Survey Center, Gittell’s research team is administering
weekly surveys to study participants. The surveys track workplace
and behavior changes and the researchers correlate these to air
The initial survey data was taken in conjunction with pollutant
measurements made as part of a large-scale air quality study conducted
in seacoast New Hampshire. On July 22 at 3 p.m. and July 23 at
2 p.m., ground ozone levels reached 120 parts per billion (ppb)
and 93 ppb, respectively, at the UNH atmospheric observatory at
Thompson Farm in Durham. These levels approach or meet the National
Ambient Air Quality Standards for ground ozone levels of 120 ppb
for one hour and 80 ppb for eight hours, which indicate that there
is a health risk, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection
Ground-level ozone, even at low levels, can adversely affect anyone,
according to the EPA. Ozone can irritate lung airways and cause
inflammation. Other symptoms include wheezing, coughing, pain when
taking a deep breath, and breathing difficulties during exercise
or outdoor activities. People with respiratory problems are most
vulnerable, but healthy people that are active outdoors can be affected
when ozone levels are high. Even at very low levels, ground-level
ozone triggers a variety of health problems including aggravated
asthma, reduced lung capacity, and increased susceptibility to respiratory
illnesses like pneumonia and bronchitis.
In addition, carbon monoxide, a tracer of combustion emissions,
remained around 300 ppb during both days, which is about double
the average CO level during the summer of 2004. Worker health and
productivity in much of New England appears to have been affected
on these poor air quality days.
According to the survey’s initial key findings:
• One third of participants felt worse on the recent poor
air quality days, experiencing symptoms including watery eyes,
throat irritation, and trouble breathing.
• One quarter of participants had lowered work productivity.
Of this group, 70 percent attributed the lower productivity to
not feeling well, yet fewer than 20 percent changed their behavior
(e.g., spent less time outside or reduced physical activity) because
of the poor air quality.
The initial data suggests there is potential to improve public
health and worker productivity with behavioral and workplace responses
to air quality. It also indicates the potential value of informing
those responses with air quality information and forecasts, Gittell
“This summer, the largest air quality study ever conducted
is occurring right here in New
England,” Gittell said. “Many studies have documented
the severe health effects of poor air quality by looking at emergency
room visits and hospital admissions. We want to use this summer’s
air quality data and build on existing research by surveying people
who might not feel as well as they usually do during poor air quality
days and finding out what impact outdoor air quality has on their
health, behavior and productivity at the workplace.”
A related issue the study has been exploring is the use of air
quality information. Air quality data often are available with
weather information. However, although 80 percent of respondents
accessed weather information, only 27 percent obtained information
about the air quality.
The survey is one part of a multifaceted study, known as the International
Consortium for Atmospheric Research on Transport and Transformation
or ICARTT, that began July 1 and will run through mid-August. Seacoast
New Hampshire is serving as the center of operations for the research
in large part because of UNH's Atmospheric Investigation, Regional
Modeling, Analysis, and Prediction program.
Editors: Ross Gittell is available to discuss the results further
and can be reached at 603-862-3340 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For
more information about ICARTT, contact David Sims with the UNH
Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space at 603-862-5369
or email@example.com, or visit http://www.al.noaa.gov/ICARTT/.