Elevated levels of CO2 create ‘less than ideal learning environment’ in some Wheatley classrooms

UMass Boston’s Wheatley Hall.

When testing campus safety upon the university community’s return to campus earlier this year, members of the anthropology department discovered elevated levels of CO2 in Wheatley Hall. The Mass Media spoke to Elizabeth Sweet, a professor in the anthropology department, regarding the department’s findings and the effects of elevated levels of CO2.

Question: How did this study come about?

Answer: I wouldn't necessarily call it a study; it's really just that we were wondering as a department about safety during COVID-19 when it was clear that we were all going to be coming back to campus in the fall. And one of the things that we thought that 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 being used already. [We] just used that as a rough estimate of air circulation and air quality, and from there, again, when we learned we were coming back to campus, we thought it would be helpful to start monitoring in classrooms as well, largely to just reassure ourselves that things seemed safe. And so, we just invested in buying a few more—we already had one CO2 monitor, I think—and we just invested in buying a couple more and starting to check that.

Q: What did you guys find, exactly?

A: Initially we were looking in our labs and offices that were being used over the summer before [the] campus [community] came back, and we were finding actually, that things for the most part were really good; that CO2 levels were in the ideal range for indoors. So, down at sea level here, you would expect outdoor air CO2 levelslike it naturally is occurring in the airso outdoor levels are around 400, and indoor levels, we were finding a lot of the offices and labs were only slightly above that, usually in the 500 range, or maybe in the 600 range, which is excellent. And so, we were feeling really good about that, that there's really good air flow and air circulation in a lot of the places that we were testing, mainly in McCormack because that's where the anthropology department is. But when we started looking at classrooms once campus came back and classes were started in the fall, we found more mixed results. [...]

We tested one in University [Hall] but it was excellent; the CO2 levels were only like 500 in there during class, and you expect that when a room is especially full of people that CO2 levels are gonna go up, but there are still some standards in terms of what's considered ideal or acceptable for CO2 levels in indoor settings. And again, we were finding that some of the classrooms, like most of the classrooms we tested in McCormack, were also within acceptable ranges, so, at or below 800. It depends who you look at and what standard you're looking at in terms of what the numbers are, but 800 is kind of ideal, and up to 1,000 is sort of acceptable levels of CO2 for indoor air, especially in educational settings. And then above that you start seeing that it's associated with some negative outcomeslike negative learning outcomes, as well as potentially some symptoms like headaches or fatigue. And the real place that we were seeing issues was Wheatley, so several of the classrooms that we tested there had CO2 levels that during classesespecially if the door was closed, but sometimes even with the door openwere going quite high, like up into the 1,300, 1,400 or even higher, so definitely higher than what's considered acceptable.

Q: What has your role been in all of this?

A: So mostly I'm just a data gatherer 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 point people for keeping track of all things COVID-19 related now that we're back on campus. And so, one of the things that we were keeping track of were these CO2 readings, and especially as we were realizing that some of the classrooms that many of us were teaching in, in Wheatley, were having some elevated readings, we started doing more widespread testing within the department. So, we're asking more and more faculty to participate in taking readings during their classes, and taking them not just once, but multiple times in multiple classes over the course of weeks to see if there was change over time and things like that. So, most of my role has been in helping to gather and keep track of that kind of data.

Q: Are you guys still gathering that data, or have you tested what you feel to be enough?

A: I think we feel like we've kind of stopped the testing for right now. Part of what we're doing at this point is trying to figure out the best use for this data. So, we have been working a bit with Facilities and OEHS on campus in terms of alerting them when we find a classroom that seems like it has a high reading, so that they can go in and do their own monitoring, because we're just in there doing this very unofficial monitoring. And they need to really go in with a monitor that will track over an entire day or multiple days and log the data so that they can really see what's going on, and when things are elevated and when they're not in a given classroom. So, we've been trying to work with them a bit with that, and they've been helpful in terms of trying to alleviate the issue in individual classrooms when we alert them to one that's a problem.

But I think one of the things that we're seeing with what we can tell from our data is that there actually are a number of rooms that are a problem and that kinda indicated to usand we're not air quality expertsbut it indicates to us looking at the data that there's maybe a more widespread issue with airflow in Wheatley in particular. Which isn't surprising, because it's an old building. But we also know that they replaced the air filters with these MERV 13 air filters which are recommended during COVID-19 times and are definitely up to the right standards in terms of what they're supposed to be doing for air filtration. So, we don't know what kind of impact that has on airflow rates; there's all kinds of stuff that we don't know, and part of what we are waiting on in terms of what to do with our data is [that] the MTA has contracted with an outside group to come in and do more widespread air quality testing of things beyond just CO2. And so, we partly want to see what they find, and how that new data could help us better interpret our CO2 readings.

One thing I will say is we did try to do some research into what CO2 tells us about overall risk. So, I mentioned it's associated with things like poorer learning outcomes and potential symptoms like headaches and fatigue, and we think that those are really important. Our students and our faculty and all of us should not be having to try to teach and learn in environments that are not ideal [and] that could be fixed. But our initial motivation for doing this monitoring was all about COVID-19 risk, so we tried to do some research into what's the relationship between CO2 and something like COVID-19 transmission in an indoor setting. MIT has some useful algorithms and things that they've put together in terms of trying to relate those two things, and from what we can tellespecially because the university did upgrade to these MERV 13 filtersit seems like the fact that everybody is wearing masks on campus and we have pretty good air filtration, that the COVID-19 transmission risk associated with even elevated CO2 levels in these rooms is probably quite low. So I think we're at this pointagain, assuming we all continue to wear mask-I think we're not particularly concerned about this being a COVID-19 risk, it's more just like 'hey, we have found, not surprisingly, that we have some 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 everybody.’

Q: Should students, staff and faculty be concerned about this?

A: Well, we're not seeing the CO2 levels that are in a toxic range, or like it's going to harm you range; it's not that kind of thing. So, I think the concern again is more that we have a less than ideal learning environment in some of these rooms in Wheatley. And to that degree, I think we should be concerned about it, 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 respect, I think that this is an equity issue as well. So, to that degree, I think we should be concerned about it.

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