indoor air quality and student performance

Harvard Study: Green Buildings (And Furniture) Improve Student Cognition

In Blog, GreenCertification, Nontoxic by Amos Kober

New studies show that indoor air quality and student performance are closely linked.

College students spend a lot of time indoors. Much of that time is in their residence hall studying, sleeping, and recreating. So providing students with the highest standard of indoor air quality is essential.

Indoor Air Quality and Student Performance

This issue has taken on greater urgency in light of a 2015 study from Harvard’s School for Public Health which measured the impact of indoor air quality (IAC) on cognitive function. In short:

The findings suggest that the indoor environments in which many people work daily could be adversely affecting cognitive function—and that, conversely, improved air quality could greatly increase the cognitive function performance of workers.

The EPA has an in-depth section on their website dedicated to indoor air quality and student performance. Citing recent research, the EPA encourages school administrators and parents to take IAQ very seriously. Among other benefits, improving IAQ will:

…reduce absenteeism, improve test scores and enhance student and staff productivity.

Evolving Indoor Air Quality

Although our legal system and scientific institutions have made great strides to study and protect the outdoor environment over the last several decades, efforts to evaluate and improve the quality of our indoor environment are—ironically enough—relatively new.

Despite the fact that most of us spend the majority of our time indoors, we’ve paid comparably little attention to the effects of indoor air quality on human health and cognition. This study is an important step in changing the status quo.

Researchers wanted to look at the impact of ventilation, chemicals, and carbon dioxide on workers’ cognitive function because, as buildings have become more energy efficient, they have also become more airtight, increasing the potential for poor indoor environmental quality.

ventilation affects indoor air quality and student performanceWhat It Means For Residence Hall Furniture

The implications for the residence hall furniture business are huge. When it comes to indoor air quality and student performance, I can think of few other places where this is more important than a university residence hall.

Ensuring that students study and work in green buildings that support learning is more important than ever.

And because residence hall furniture is a major—if not primary—determinant of indoor air quality, it’s important for student health and performance that you insist on getting furniture that is MAS Green and FSC certified.

VOCs and Furniture

You’d think this would be obvious, but it’s not. There are still issues. For example, it’s no secret that the furniture industry is resistant and slow to evolve when it comes to compliance with voluntary and mandated standards like reducing toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

In fact, because VOCs are such a problem when it comes to IAC, in the Harvard study researchers tested the effects of VOC exposure on brain function. They exposed participants to high concentrations of VOCs, similar to those emitted from common materials in offices.

They found that cognitive performance scores for the participants who worked in the green+ environments were, on average, double those of participants who worked in conventional environments; scores for those working in green environments were 61% higher.

Formaldehyde is one of the most problematic VOCs in furniture contributing to poor indoor air quality and student performance.

And yet many residence hall furniture companies import wood and furniture from Malaysia and China, which still use formaldehyde in their furniture.

We’ve chronicled this issue with respect to Rubberwood and Wood Laminate.

Safeguarding Student & Resident Health

So how can you safeguard student health and make sure that your residence hall furniture isn’t emitting harmful chemicals? That is to say, how can you make sure that it’s safe?

One of the best certifications for guaranteeing residence hall furniture with the highest indoor air quality ratings is MAS Certified Green. What is MAS?

MAS Certification is administered by Material Analytical Services, an independent, third party laboratory that offers testing services that meet stringent ANSI (American National Standards Institute) Furniture Sustainability Standards.

This is the same set of standards for GreenGuard certification. According to the MAS website, the MAS Green Certification is more stringent than GreenGuard. The truth is, they are both well-respected certifications, but you can compare the two here.

Here’s what you need to know about MAS Certification.

What Is MAS Certified Green & Why Is It Important?

non toxic furniture helps indoor air quality

MAS is an independent environmental consulting firm that was founded in 1987 in response to growing concerns about indoor air quality.

It developed the MAS Green Certification so that, “consumers could readily identify interior construction products, furniture, and furnishings which have been thoughtfully designed and manufactured to dramatically lower chemical emissions released into the indoor environment.”

One of the most important things that MAS addresses with its certification is something called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Increased exposure to these chemical compounds inside buildings can be toxic and dangerous to human health.

Because of this, the US EPA and Consumer Product Safety Commission spurred regulators and industry groups to develop standards to diminish and stamp out hazardous chemical emissions from construction products and furniture.

Why is this so important?

Why Indoor Air Quality Is Non-Negotiable

green buildings and indoor air qualityIt’s crucial to have Low or No VOC emitting furniture because many of today’s energy-efficient buildings don’t circulate much (if any) air from the outside environment. In essence, it’s a closed loop.

So when you combine low ventilation rates, high occupant densities, and the use of chemicals in interior furnishings, you get a potentially toxic mix of air quality. This can translate into a number of issues including more reported allergen problems, odor complaints, and other health issues.

As a furniture manufacturer, how do we deal with this?

First, we use low-VOC and low-formaldehyde emitting furniture. That goes a long way to improving air quality conditions. And according to a CDC report, high levels of exposure to formaldehyde can cause cancer and a variety of symptoms like sore throat, scratchy eyes, nosebleeds, and coughing.

That’s why it’s crucial to have furniture that has the MAS Green Certification. It protects us from these harmful VOCs and ensures that chemicals used in production are at super safe levels.

The hardwood panels that we produce in our Lisbon, NH factory use either no-added formaldehyde (NAF) based resins or ultra-low-emitting formaldehyde (ULEF) resins. These satisfy the rigorous standards of MAS Green Certification.

  1. NAF based resins are created with no added formaldehyde as part of the resin cross linking structure, and include resins made from soy, polyvinyl acetate, or methylene diisocyanate.
  2. ULEF resins are formaldehyde containing resins formulated such that the formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products are consistently below applicable CARB (California Air Resources Board) Phase 2 emission standards.
    1. ANSI/BIFMA e3-2012 Section 7.6.1, 7.6.2, and X7.1-2011 for private offices • California Dept. of Public Health (CDPH) Standard Method V1.1

You can learn more about the MAS Green Certification here. This is how they describe their testing protocols.

The MAS Certified Green® program integrates the rigorous product testing requirements of the CDPH (California Dept of Public Health) Standard Method V1.1, the BIFMA M7.1 Test Method and Formaldehyde emission testing requirements of the Cal EPA – ARB with the conservative chemical emission limits referenced by the USGBC LEED, CHPS and CARB organizations. There is not a more conservative or rigorous IAQ (indoor air quality) product testing program available. The MAS Certified Green® program is ISO/TEC 17025 and 17065 compliant and recognized by LEED, CDPH, BIFMA and CHPS.

Make Sure Your Furniture Provider Is MAS Certified

Ok. I know some of that is like reading Greek. But the important thing to know is that the MAS certification adheres to standards set by the most progressive public health institutions in the United States.

And it uses a meticulous testing methodology.

In short, as someone who is responsible for the air quality of your residence hall, it’s crucial that when you’re choosing your furniture, make sure that it is MAS or Greenguard certified.

If you don’t, as this Harvard Study demonstrates, you’re risking the health and the cognitive development of your students. It might be a tad over dramatic to say so, but by choosing furniture that’s not certified, you’re undermining the very mission of higher education.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also like: Is Your Furniture Toxic? Everything You Need To Know About Flame Retardant Chemicals

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To set up an order today or to talk with one of our representatives, you can write to us here or call: (800) 552-8286.

You can also learn more about our industry-leading FSC CoC certification, our MAS certification, and our green materials sourcing, sustainable manufacturing, and our unique zero waste Vertical Integration Process (VIP).

Download the DCI Sustainability Pledge here.