Indoor air research finds people may not be able to "breathe easy" at home

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On March 10, 2004

It may not be the common cold that’s the culprit behind your itchy eyes and dry throat but some of the common chemicals found in your home, according to a University of Missouri-Rolla researcher developing new techniques to understand indoor air pollution and "Sick Building Syndrome."

Some chemical products, while benign by themselves, can combine with outdoor pollution all urban areas face and cause problems for people indoors. "Terpenes, often used as a fragrance in cleaning materials, are perfectly natural and fine by themselves," says Dr. Glenn Morrison, assistant professor of civil, architectural and environmental engineering at UMR. "But they combine with ozone — from either outdoor air or ozone-generating devices — to create a mixture which has a very high aerosol concentration, higher than federal standards."

Such a mixture may react with mucus membranes to create a situation where people may feel ill, although they may not smell anything. "This leads to symptoms associated with Sick Building Syndrome," Morrison says. "It’s a subtle phenomenon that occurs indoors that make people feel poorly because they are being attacked in a low-grade way by these reactive chemicals." Common symptoms include lethargy, dry throat, itchy eyes and irritated mucus membranes.

Morrison has spent nearly a decade studying indoor air pollution and most recently has been developing new techniques for environmental analysis. His research into pollution generated by items in a house, such as carpets and wood studs, as well as how people use their homes is being funded through a five-year, $400,000 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation. The Career Award is NSF’s most prestigious award given to assistant professors in a tenure-track position. The CAREER program recognizes and supports the early career development activities of those teacher-scholars who are to become the academic leaders of the 21st century.

"People have a lot of complaints about schools not being healthy or their workplaces not being healthy, but usually their homes are much less healthy," Morrison says. "We do it all to ourselves. We take a lot of care in commercial buildings and schools to properly ventilate them, to clean the air with filtration and to choose the right materials to put in the building. But in homes it’s a much more crude process."

The way people use their homes also can cause problems. "People park in their garages and their cars sit there slowly releasing gasoline vapors," Morrison says. "The garages are not sealed from their houses and that’s why a lot of toxic gasoline compounds like benzene and toluene are at far higher concentrations than they are outdoors. In addition, we put far too many pesticides in our home, by spraying Raid-type products around for a roach problem."

Morrison says that people get 95 percent of their exposure of most of these toxic chemicals just by going home at night. "Residential exposure to indoor pollution is probably worse than anywhere else, unless we’re talking about some unusual occupational setting, like coal mining," Morrison adds. "The pollutants, mainly organic compounds and a variety of aerosols, are at just plain higher concentrations."

Part of the project with NSF will focus on the chemistry of surfaces and how that chemistry creates pollutants indoors. "For example, cooking can affect the chemistry of surfaces," Morrison says. "Cooking oils get all over the place. These oils react with naturally occurring ozone in air and create a variety of compounds that may be toxic or just plain irritating or smelly. All of these things combine to make an indoor atmosphere much worse than an outdoor atmosphere."

According to Morrison, people can limit the amount of air pollution in their homes by taking the following easy steps:

— Don’t put lawnmowers or other equipment that use gasoline in a connected garage. Put it in a shed outside.

— Properly maintain your home so that you don’t generate mold. Make sure you repair all the leaks and make sure you use the ventilation fan when taking the shower because that’s where many mold problems begin. Have an electrician connect the fan to the light switch so that it always comes on.

— Reduce your use of all kinds of chemical cleansers and use more benign items like baking soda when possible.

— Don’t use any kind of ozone-generating device or unvented heaters indoors.

— Don’t smoke indoors.

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On March 10, 2004. Posted in Research