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The Effects of CO2 on Cognition - Research by Victor Peng

By Saesha Bhat (‘24)

One scientific fact that the majority of people know is that we inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Oxygen is known as the gas we need to live, grow, and reproduce. It serves as the needed material to keep our bodies functioning and our cells continuously working to keep us alive. However, what importance does carbon dioxide do to our bodies, specifically our minds?

Junior Victor Peng showed the same curiosity when he published research on CO2 levels with his dad, in and around his house and the negative impact these levels can have on cognitive abilities. His research explains the scientific reasoning as to why high levels of carbon dioxide can decrease work efficiency and cause other negative effects on our health. As a chemistry lover, this experiment was exciting and surprising from beginning to end for Peng.

He said, “Our houses have a lot of carbon monoxide detectors, but there is nothing for carbon dioxide. You can tell if air is stale but you can’t really measure it. I decided to buy a carbon dioxide detector from Amazon.” And this was the beginning of a surprising discovery, one that inspired Peng to release research out into the world.

Peng’s research illustrates previous observations made by scientists that have shown carbon dioxide to inhibit clear thinking and productivity. A 2020 study conducted by IOPScience observed the effects of CO2 concentrations in rooms, particularly when sleeping. They found that tightly sealed rooms lead to insufficient filtration of fresh air, resulting in a buildup of CO2 which can contribute to fatigue, drowsiness, and a lack of concentration.

Although this has major implications on sleep, this can affect energy spent in the daytime for work. High school indirectly forces teens to stay inside due to the workload from higher classes such as APs. In addition to students, workers can feel these effects like digital artists and coders who spend all day on the computer in the same workspace. Junior year for Peng presents even more work given SAT preparation on top of regular homework and tests. Due to this, Peng found his room environment to negatively impact his thinking and breathing, urging him and his dad to test the CO2 levels.

“When I first started testing, I was honestly surprised at the high concentrations of CO2 present, so I decided to test some more in case the meter wasn't accurate. As it turns out, it was accurate, and I was just being stubborn trying to keep people from entering my room.…it immediately went to 2000 ppm because I kept my room closed,” he said.

The global average concentration of carbon dioxide is 420 ppm, so this discovery set off alarms in Peng’s head, ushering him to open the windows, doors, and anything else that would filter the bad out for fresh air. He also went to test the air around his area such as his backyard, west and east of Route 130, the sides of Indian Fields Elementary School, and east of I-95. They all demonstrated normal amounts for his area, showing the problem to be within the room.

A room with a higher concentration than the global average concentration reinforced the ideas scientists have been pressing all along. Carbon dioxide in unbearable amounts can lead to health issues that the average person does not take into consideration. With carbon dioxide levels being 50% higher in less than 200 years, people must take steps to reduce such levels in their homes to welcome clear thinking and lasting health.

Peng explains, “Carbon dioxide itself is a real issue at this point because not only is it slowing down how we think, but it also is contributing a lot to global warming, which is a really huge problem that we all have to deal with sooner or later. It will destroy us. If [people] don’t believe in global warming, they can at least believe that carbon dioxide is bad in high concentrations.”

Is this revolutionary to discover? No, Peng explains, because this is information scientists have observed and tested for years ever since the Industrial Revolution. However, he doesn’t see this information to be insignificant as the general public is very unaware that small actions such as closing windows and doors for long periods can have drastic effects on their health.

Since South Brunswick is a suburban town, the CO2 readings are much lower compared to cities like New York City, making opening the windows to let air in a safer option. Peng recommends all to invest in a carbon dioxide meter to monitor CO2 levels in highly congregated areas. Even if one does not want to or can not invest in one, it is still important to open windows and doors to let fresh air flow through. As well, a fan running helps circulate air better. Higher stories should also be a priority as CO2 is heavier than air and will sink to the lowest level. These steps, although seemingly small and unimportant, can have lasting impacts that help you feel better physically and mentally.

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