Your office has a microbiome, and it might make you sick

I worked for a number of years, like many people, in an office building with windows that did not open. For the first time in my life, a slight soreness tingled in my throat almost every day. Each time a denizen of that floor got a cold, it decimated at least a third of the floor’s employees. For the next week or two, a swath of cubicles would sit empty. I took to avoiding pressing the water cooler button with a bare hand.

For the sake of energy efficiency, more and more buildings are sealed off completely to the outside world, relying on mechanical ventilation for airflow. But little science has been done to explain how our architectural choices are changing the world of microbes that live inside these buildings—and human health. If I wanted to test whether it was really my office getting me sick (or figure out strategies to avoid it), I wouldn’t have much to go on.

But that’s about to change: The National Academies of Sciences has spent the better part of the year gathering scientists, architects, and engineers to understand the indoor microbiome, which will culminate in a review paper released at the beginning of next year. The National Academies hopes the paper will serve as a guidepost for future research, by nailing down which unanswered questions about the indoor microbiome are most critical to society.

The stakes are high: Americans spend almost 90 percent of their time indoors, so almost all of our microbial exposure occurs inside buildings. That entire time, we’re being enveloped by millions of organisms we can’t see. That’s because a building, like a human gut or vagina, has a microbiome too—a community of microbes that live and thrive in it. Only about 20 percent of the microbes in any given occupied building come from the humans inside, according to Yale University professor and chemical engineer Jordan Peccia, who studies how microbes move inside rooms and through vents (he helped write the National Academies study). “When you come into your home, or your office, you’re completely and continually bathed in those microbes,” Peccia says