Most U.S. residents spend 90 percent of their lives indoors: sleeping, cooking, eating, cleaning. All these activities affect the air we breathe and the surfaces we touch – yet little is understood about their associated health effects.
An unprecedented scientific inquiry into the chemistry of the indoor environment is being launched by Colorado State University researchers. Delphine Farmer, associate professor of chemistry, is co-leading a two-year, $1.1 million Sloan Foundation-backed project to examine various aspects of indoor air, surfaces and microbes in a typical U.S. home. She’ll be joined by multiple researchers in a multifaceted, four-week experiment, slated for June 2018, at a University of Texas at Austin testing facility that recreates a real home.
The grant was awarded jointly to Farmer and Marina Vance, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at University of Colorado Boulder. Their primary goals are initiating community building and data infrastructure for the Sloan Foundation’s Chemistry of Indoor Environments program. Their project is called HOMEChem, or House Observations of Microbial and Environmental Chemistry.
“There have been individual studies, but we realized that there’s been no concerted effort to really, all at once, comprehensively understand the chemistry of the indoor environment,” Farmer said.
For the field experiment, HOMEChem will bring traditional outdoor chemists, including Farmer, together with microbiologists, engineers and building scientists to identify important aspects of the chemistry that controls most indoor environments.
Existing techniques, new applications
Farmer is a physical and atmospheric chemist who studies how humans influence the air we breathe and related implications for ecosystems and health. Her expertise is in developing new mass spectrometry-based instrumentation for analyzing air samples for various chemicals and their gas- or aerosol-phase byproducts. For the HOMEChem effort, Farmer will deploy many of the same techniques she uses for outdoor air sampling – but in a completely new application.
“We spend most of our time indoors, yet our health outcomes are correlated to outdoor measurements,” Farmer said. “We really don’t know what’s going on inside. It’s completely uncharted chemistry territory.”
Among Farmer’s goals for the project are developing new ways of sampling indoor air, as well as infrastructure and archiving protocols for the large amounts of data being collected.
“Now that we have all this fancy instrumentation, especially as chemists, we are producing a lot of data,” she said. “We need to store it. And we need to be able to use some of these new analysis tools for big data projects and apply them to the complex environments we’re looking at. We don’t have the infrastructure to do it.”
The HOMEChem field experiment will take place in June at the UT Austin Test House, a facility modeled after a real home that’s typically used to measure things like HVAC systems, temperature and relative humidity. Researchers from University of California San Diego, Indiana University and many others will set up individual experiments and work together to capture a complete picture of the indoor environment during activities like cooking and household cleaning.
Farmer will deploy instruments looking at oxidized organics in the gas phase. One example: limonene, found in everyday products with a lemon scent, oxidizes to form breathable particles in the air.
CU Boulder’s Vance will attack the same problems from an engineering perspective, thinking more specifically about particle size distributions and how they interact. Vance will also lead community-building with disparate researchers interested in indoor air quality.