Someday, an enterprising auteur will write a horror movie about cubicle dwellers who turn into zombies due to the toxic dust in their offices. We will all line up to buy popcorn and be horrified. Like all good monster movie premises, this will be based in fact.
Although the chemicals in your office might not make you stagger through the streets looking for brains, they are present, very real, and can definitely make you sick.
One prime suspect is polybrominated dipheny ether (PBDE), a banned flame retardant found in furniture, carpeting, and the polyurethane padding in older office chairs. A recent study found significant amounts of PBDE on office workers’ hands, especially if they spent more than 20 hours a week in the office.
High concentrations of this chemical can lead to thyroid problems, fatigue, weight gain, depression, and low libido. In other words, many of the symptoms you attribute to working in an enclosed space under fluorescent light might just be a side effect of a toxic environment.
To avoid over-exposure to these chemicals:
- Wash frequently, wash thoroughly. Workers who washed their hands at least four times a day had lower levels of toxic chemicals than those who skipped soaping up.
- Don’t bring home “products that have ‘brominated fire retardants’ or ‘deca.'” Deca is a common component in pre-LCD television screens and other flame-retardant materials. It’s yet another good reason not to swipe old school electronics from work.
- Vacuum your space with a HEPA filter, which removes many toxins and pollutants from the air, including PBDE.
- Dust with a damp cloth.
Managers can also combat in-office toxins by rearranging their workers’ spaces to include more natural light, fresh air (if possible), and fewer synthetics. In fact, a 2003 study showed that call center workers who were closer to windows had up to 12 percent faster response times, 25 percent higher mental acuity tests, and a significantly lower absentee rate than workers who were dependent on canned air and fluorescent lighting.
But what should you do if you’re just a lowly grunt in the environment wars? In addition to dusting and not taking home old equipment, you can cut down on the carbon dioxide in your atmosphere by programming your computer to go into sleep mode after five minutes of idle time. Also helpful: bringing the great outdoors indoors. Certain plants — Gerber Daisies, for example — absorb pollution and filter benzene and formaldehyde.