More atmospheric CO2 could reduce cognitive ability, especially in children

New research from the University of Colorado Boulder, the Colorado School of Public Health, and the University of Pennsylvania found that higher levels of atmospheric CO2 in the future could lead to cognitive issues.

Image via Pixabay.

A new study found that higher concentrations of atmospheric CO2 could negatively impact our cognitive abilities — especially among children in the classroom. The findings were presented at this year’s American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting.

Heavy breathing

Prior research has shown that higher-than-average levels of CO2 can impair our thinking and lead to cognitive problems. Children in particular and their academic performance can be negatively impacted by this, but, so far, researchers have identified a simple and elegant solution — open the windows and let some fresh air in.

However, what happens when the air outside also shows higher-than-usual CO2 levels? In an effort to find out, the team used a computer model and looked at two scenarios: one in which we successfully reduce the amount of CO2 we emit into the atmosphere, and one in which we don’t (a business-as-usual scenario). They then analyzed what effects each situation would have on a classroom of children.

In the first scenario, they explain that by 2100 students will be exposed to enough CO2 gas that, judging from the results of previous studies, they would experience a 25% decline in cognitive abilities. Under the second scenario, however, they report that students could experience a whopping 50% decline in cognitive ability.

The study doesn’t look at the effects of breathing higher-than-average quantities of CO2 sporadically — it analyzes the effects of doing so on a regular basis. The team explained that their study was the first to gauge this impact, and that the findings — while definitely worrying — still need to be validated by further research. Note that the paper has been submitted for peer-review pending publication but has yet to pass this step.

All in all, however, it’s another stark reminder that we should make an effort to cut CO2 emissions as quickly as humanly possible. Not only because they’re ‘killing the planet’, but because they will have a deeply negative impact on our quality of life, and mental capacity, in the future.

A preprint of the paper “Fossil fuel combustion is driving indoor CO2 toward levels harmful to human cognition” is available on EarthArXiv, and has been submitted for peer-review and publication in the journal GeoHealth.

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