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Feeling unmotivated at work? It may be something in the air

Study finds exposure to fine particulate pollution at high levels led to more down time on the job

Inversion builds in both Salt Lake and Utah counties on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019.
FILE - Inversion builds in both Salt Lake and Utah Counties in Northern Utah on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The inversion is settling in, the skies are dismally gray and it feels like you can chew the air.

What do you do?

Take longer and more frequent breaks.

At least that is the primary conclusion from a new study published this month in the American Economic Journal: Advanced Economics, that for the first time looked at measurable impacts from air pollution on sedentary desk workers, not employees engaged in strenuous, physical labor outdoors.

Inversion builds in both Salt Lake and Utah counties on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019.
FILE - Inversion builds in both Salt Lake and Utah Counties in Northern Utah on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

"Given the ubiquity of office work and the value it adds to the global economic output, the welfare implications of any link between pollution and productivity in this setting are potentially enormous," the study said.

Researchers from the University of Southern California, the University of California at San Diego, Boston University and Columbia University measured the productivity of a group of workers from a call center firm with offices in Shanghai and Nantong, China.

"Our analysis reveals a statistically signficant, negative impact of pollution on the productivity of workers at the firm," it said. "A 10-unit increase in the air pollution index (API) decreases the number of daily calls handled by a worker by 0.35 percent on average," it said.

The body of research relied on three measures: number of phone calls handled per shift, number of minutes spent on the phone and number of minutes logged into the call center's computer system.

Over the study period, the analysis focused on work habits of employees at Ctrip, China's largest travel agency, and found that a decrease in calls stemmed from an increased amount of time spent on breaks — during high pollution episodes.

Productivity declines, it said, with "statistically signficant results" when the Air Pollution Index is above a value of 100 in some instances and in all instances when it eclipses 150.

The study's researchers say that conclusion is significant because it means impacts are not confined to the most polluted cities in the developing world.

A young girl walks her dog on the sidewalk in the Salt Lake Valley on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018.
FILE - A young girl walk her dog on the sidewalk with Inversion in the Salt Lake valley on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Utah's major metro areas can hit those values during episodic spikes in fine particulate pollution when inversions strike.

Los Angeles in 2014 had air pollution index values greater than 150 for 13 days, and Phoenix experienced 33 days that same year, with nearly half exceeding 200, according to the study.

The research took in or excluded a variety of factors to arrive at its statistical analysis, surveying temperatures, differences in the two distinct study locations, whether workers who telecommuted experienced productivity variability because of a lack of a commute and labor output in general at the company.

Locally, clean air advocates, lawmakers and others steeped in the challenges of cleaning Utah's air are well aware that the gunk hovering over the state can lead to a funk in the individual.

"I get a number of calls from people when the inversion is prolonged and they want to know what we are doing about it. They're cranky," said Donna Kemp Spangler, spokeswoman with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

"It zaps the energy out of you."

Deborah Burney-Sigman, who has a doctorate in biology and is executive director of Breathe Utah, was intrigued to learn about the study.

"The science is bearing out that the grossness of air pollution itself may be part of the economic drag," she said. "It (the study) provides very important context if there are tradeoffs for bolstering our economy and providing environmental protections."

Achieving balance, she added, is key.

The study points out that China's economic expansion and pollution problems may be the harbinger for developing countries or even areas closer to home grappling with economic development and burgeoning pollution challenges.

"By many metrics, China's environmental quality ranks among the lowest in the world, rivaled only by major metropolitan areas in India that have witnessed a similar decline in air quality due to increased industrialization and urbanization," the study said.

"An effect on worker productivity would suggest China's prioritization of industrial expansion over environmental protection throughout the past decades may have undermined some of the economic growth its policies were designed to achieve."

China is a far distance from the Wasatch Front, but Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, says the results are not unsurprising, and not something to be dismissed on the Wasatch Front.

Arent, who founded the Utah Legislature's Clean Air Caucus and is its co-chair, added air pollution woes have made their own impact here.

"I have certainly heard this concern from many workers and employers. This is just one more reason why it is important to reduce air pollution in this state."

Correction: An earlier version of this story said researchers participating in the study were from the University of Southern California at San Diego. The researchers are affiliated with the University of Southern California and the University of California, San Diego.