The Avery Greenhouse Effect

Caltech is literally killing you. The workload is inundating, the stress is nonstop, and the sleep is nonexistent. But the stressors of this Institution go beyond the mental. Caltech-hired landscapers have been criticized for spraying carcinogenic herbicides around graduate student housing [Pasadena Star News, July 18, 2019], Dining Services’ takeout containers and cups are most likely leeching microplastics [Fangni et al. (2020), Journal of Hazardous Materials], and anyone with a functioning set of taste buds recognizes that the water is oddly metallic. But an under-recognized source of malaise is the architecture of Caltech. While you may think that I am criticizing the eyesore that is the George W. Downs Laboratory of Physics (where the shock of seeing such an ugly building forced me to switch my major from Physics to BioE), I am actually criticizing how the architecture stagnates the air within the dorms.

How did I become aware of this issue? The short of it is that, during my freshman year, I:

  • acquired a chronic infection that blew up into appendicitis,
  • was denied death,
  • met what or who some Christians tell me is “God,” what some Hindus tell me what or who is “Brahma,” and what some Buddhists tell me is the “self,” and
  • became obsessed with the basic tenets of good health like food, water, air, and exercise in hopes of never again facing Lady Death (who, in my experience, is an entirely different, albeit pleasant fellow).

In doing so, I got an air filter with the expectation that I’d be hoovering away the carpet cleaners that Housing liberally lathers onto every imaginable surface. On a whim, I got an air quality monitor. After all, why not have some metrics to quantify the effectiveness of my interventions?

What I did not expect, though, was to find that the air quality monitor was a better investment than the air filter itself. Immediately upon setting it up, my monitor generally found the particulate matters scores (and hence air quality) to be rather acceptable. However, what was alarming was the ambient reading of 1400 ppm CO2 in my room. For those who do not have the thumbstick guidelines of air quality internalized, anything above 1000 ppm is synonymous with “open your window!” [American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers] Surely my CO2 meter was wrong, I thought. But no. The atmosphere—serving as an easy calibrator—read an expected 400 ppm CO2 []. Breathing into the device skyrocketed the reading to nearly 40,000 ppm, which was also expected [Issarow et al. (2015), Journal of Theoretical Biology]. Continual measurements with the meter revealed that my room actually averaged from 1400-1800 ppm, even when no one was in the room. From there, the only question that naturally followed was, “how high can these levels get when I’m sleeping?”

For reference, my roommate and I are in Avery. We’ve got pretty nice facilities here. BUT! The air circulation is kind of … not circulating. Given this, and that we cannot choose to stop ourselves from breathing, the answer is about a plateau of 2200-2600 ppm CO2. When we hosted a CUCer (Caltech Up Close participant; Caltech did not think this name through, evidently), levels reached a brain-adulterating 3700 ppm. In fact, the levels of CO2 are so highly correlated to the number of humans present in our room that I can estimate when my roommate returns for the night by simply observing when a major uptick occurs on the monitor.

It is almost self-evident that these levels of CO2 are unhealthy. This can simply be observed by going outside after spending a night in the airtight boxes that are Avery dorms and noticing that your brain comes alive after feeling starved for air. However, for the statistical aficionados among my readers, the detrimental effect of CO2 concentrations in indoor spaces can be quantified (and no, you should not use these as a guideline to figure out how much caffeine you need to “cancel out” the effects of stale air. Go outside).

Conventional wisdom says that CO2 is not a direct pollutant, but rather an indicator of stale air which, in turn, contains pollutants that are responsible for the associated effects of high CO2. However, researchers from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory disputed this wisdom in a study of 24 participants, mostly college students. The researchers subjected the subjects to a Strategic Management Simulation (SMS) — a generalized test utilizing computerized simulations of everyday tasks, employed in both clinical and professional settings to assess the influence of agents such as drugs, pharmaceuticals, brain injuries, etc on cognitive performance — under elevated CO2 concentrations. Students were placed in small-office-like chambers for 2.5 hours at three concentrations of CO2: 600 ppm, 1000 ppm, and 2500 ppm. Ultrapure CO2 was injected into the air supply and stirred into the surrounding air, with all other factors (temperature, humidity, ventilation rate, pollutants, etc) kept constant. Across all metrics, at both 1000 ppm and 2500 ppm, obvious effects were noted by the researchers relative to the baseline of 600 ppm. Scores in categories of basic & applied activity, information utilization & usage, initiative, and basic strategy all decreased in the neighborhood of 20% to 50%, with some (such as initiative) decreasing by a whopping 91% at 2500 ppm [Satish et al. (2012), Environmental Health Perspectives]. It is important to note that these metrics are derived from a score, which are derived from a contrived test, that show the effect of CO2 on artificially constructed metrics and tasks. Further, the study only utilized 24 participants, so it does demand that, if one wants to generally quantify how it affects humans, we should employ larger studies. However, despite the limitations of the study, such startling results suggest that overall brain function may be negatively impacted and that we must seek out more studies and metrics to understand how extreme this effect might be.

Harvard’s CogFx study shines some light on this. CogFx took a cohort of 302 office workers in six countries—China, India, Mexico, Thailand, the UK, and the US—and measured the effects of CO2 on cognitive function. In these studies, they employed a Stroop test (where color names are colored different colors, e.g. “Purple,” but colored blue and one must correctly name the color of the word) and an addition-subtraction test. For every 500 ppm increase, the researchers found that their response times for these tests slowed by 1.4-1.8%, and throughput (the rate of correct responses per minute) to be 2.1-2.4% lower [Laurent et al. (2021), Environmental Research Letters]. While these numbers don’t appear to be too large in relation to the Berkeley study, one must keep in mind that they’re per 500 ppm increases, meaning at the average CO2 concentrations within my dorm room (about 1400-1800 ppm), I can expect my cognition and my ability to answer questions to be impaired by three times the above rates. And this is just while I’m awake. While I’m not solving integrals in my sleep (unless the stress of exam season gets so bad that this school invades my only refuge — dreams), I cannot imagine an agent that decreases my cognitive function to be beneficial to the memory consolidation [Klinzing et al. (2019), Nature Neuroscience], clearing of cellular trash from my brain [Eugene and Masiak (2015), MEDtube Science] and the general repair processes that occur while I sleep [Peters (2010), Verywell Health].

Generally, it needn’t be harped on as to why students at Caltech should care so much about the quality of air and how it affects our cognitive function. It is quite simple: you cannot not breathe, and if the air is polluted or suffocates your brain, then you are forced to breathe it in. At such a high octane school, even a minute decrease in response times and throughput correctly not only directly impacts our grades, but also our confidence and every downstream consequence of that (mental health, physical health, the whole shebang).

And what to do about this problem? The obvious answer is “open your window,” but respectfully, the air in Pasadena is part of the LA basin ecosystem, and hence the outdoor air is completely awful. Fine particulate matter (2.5 microns, or PM2.5) is an antagonist to human health linked to increasing the rates of cancer, heart disease, and practically every chronic illness [World Health Organisation]. Further, Pasadena experiences an average of 13.8 unhealthy PM2.5 days a year, and 111 of 365 unhealthy ozone days. To understand just how bad this is, the EPA targets no more than 3.2 unhealthy ozone days per year. Worse yet, in terms of PM2.5, the American Lung Association notes that Pasadena air fails to meet federal targets for both short and long term exposure and ranks in the top ten for the most unhealthy levels nationwide [].

And what do I personally do? In my own case, my room is situated next to Del Mar Blvd on the outskirts of campus, so I truly believe it to be a hazard to keep my window open on a bad day; I’ve woken up with the back of my throat caked with a dehydrating pith of some chemical monstrosity, no doubt a concoction of cancerous gasoline byproducts and even MORE microplastics from tires [Mueller, Steffen et al. (2021) International journal of environmental research and public health][Tamis et al. (2021), Micropl. & Nanopl.]. Further, our air conditioners are self-cycling and not connected to the outdoors, so it’s not as if we can pull in filtered fresh air as is possible in Venerable House. As I see it, there are only four solutions: 1) don’t breathe, 2) move out of Avery, 3) get a window adapter that allows my filter to suck in air from the outdoors, 4) knock down Avery house and rebuild it with healthy circulation air in mind. None of these are particularly attractive, and while 3 seems the most practical to me, it isn’t advice that one can give out to the general student population as it demands they whip out their construction skills, risk violating Housing policy, drain their wallets, and buy an air filter.

Now, after yapping for 1600 words that basically summarize to, “My window is open except for when the air outside sucks,” all I can really encourage is just try it out yourself. Maybe I wrote this article to complain and I’ve managed to annoy every house for complaining about Avery facilities. Or maybe, it’s an ask to just be aware of the subtleties around us and how they affect you, personally. Open your window, maybe. Drink some water, maybe. Get some sunlight, maybe. Go outside, maybe. There’s really not too much more to say. If living and dying has taught me anything, it’s that there’s a whole world out there, and there’s nary a neuron in any of our heads that’s going to benefit from being stuffed in a stuffy brain in an even stuffier room.


  • Scauzillo, Steve. 2019. “Caltech Landscaper Applied ‘Probable Carcinogen’ in Graduate Housing Complex, Playground.” Pasadena Star News. July 18, 2019.
  • Du, Fangni, Huiwen Cai, Qun Zhang, Qiqing Chen, and Huahong Shi. 2020. “Microplastics in Take-out Food Containers.” Journal of Hazardous Materials 399 (November): 122969.
  • Persily, Andrew, Corinne Mandin, and William Bahnfleth. 2022. “ASHRAE Position Document on Indoor Carbon Dioxide.” The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers.
  • Buis, Alan. 2019. “The Atmosphere: Getting a Handle on Carbon Dioxide.” Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. NASA. October 9, 2019.
  • Issarow, Chacha M et al. 2015. “Modelling the risk of airborne infectious disease using exhaled air.” Journal of theoretical biology vol. 372: 100-6. doi:10.1016/j.jtbi.2015.02.010
  • Satish, Usha et al. 2012. “Is CO2 an indoor pollutant? Direct effects of low-to-moderate CO2 concentrations on human decision-making performance.” Environmental health perspectives vol. 120,12: 1671-7. doi:10.1289/ehp.1104789
  • Laurent, Jose Guillermo Cedeño et al. 2021. “Associations between Acute Exposures to PM2.5 and Carbon Dioxide Indoors and Cognitive Function in Office Workers: A Multicountry Longitudinal Prospective Observational Study.” Environmental research letters : ERL [Web site] vol. 16,9: 094047. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/ac1bd8
  • Klinzing, Jens G et al. “Mechanisms of systems memory consolidation during sleep.” 2019. Nature neuroscience vol. 22,10: 1598-1610. doi:10.1038/s41593-019-0467-3
  • Eugene, Andy R, and Jolanta Masiak. 2015. “The Neuroprotective Aspects of Sleep.” MEDtube science vol. 3,1: 35-40.
  • Peters, Brandon. 2010. “Importance of Body and Mind Restoration during Sleep.” Verywell Health. Verywell Health. October 14, 2010.
  • World Health Organisation. 2022. “Household Air Pollution and Health.” World Health Organization: WHO. November 28, 2022.
  • Mueller, Steffen et al. “An Assessment on Ethanol-Blended Gasoline/Diesel Fuels on Cancer Risk and Mortality.” International journal of environmental research and public health vol. 18,13 6930. 28 Jun. 2021, doi:10.3390/ijerph18136930.
  • Tamis, J.E., Koelmans, A.A., Dröge, R. et al. Environmental risks of car tire microplastic particles and other road runoff pollutants. Micropl.&Nanopl. 1, 10 (2021). Tamis et. al, Microplastics & Nanoplastics
  • “Pasadena Air Quality Index (AQI) and California Air Pollution | AirVisual.” n.d.