Speed Reads

Uh oh

Pollution might make us too stupid to fight pollution, study finds

The climate change effects of rising levels of carbon dioxide are fairly well-known — but what if this air pollution makes us dumber, too? That's the proposal of the University of Colorado's Kris Karnauskas, an ocean sciences professor, in a paper he co-authored and presented at an American Geophysical Union meeting this fall.

"This is a hidden impact of climate change," Karnauskas explained in an interview withThe Atlantic, "that could actually impact our ability to solve the problem itself."

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have risen to around 410 parts per million from about 280 parts per million 250 years ago. Indoor carbon dioxide concentrations tend to be higher than the atmospheric baseline thanks to human breathing, which means that the higher that baseline goes, Karnauskas theorizes, the more rapidly poorly ventilated rooms will reach levels able to impair cognition.

Prior research suggests those effects become noticeable around 945 parts per million, and at 1,400 parts per million cognitive function can go down by 50 percent. However, a different study found no impairment at 3,000 parts per million, linking cognitive decline to other indoor air pollutants instead.

The paper Karnauskas co-wrote has not yet been peer reviewed, and "[t]here's got to be a lot more work on this," he told The Atlantic. For example, it's possible high carbon dioxide levels only affect certain populations or certain types of cognition, or that they act to intensify the effects of other particles but don't directly hurt our thinking ability. In the meantime, though, does it seem stuffy in here to you?