UT researches indoor air quality to find solutions for a healthier life

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Jim Price and his colleagues discuss the emission of chemicals of petrochemical facilities in the annual Air Quality Research Program workshop.

Photo Credit: Rebeca Rodriguez | Daily Texan Staff

While sun burn and heat exhaustion pose great risks to those who spend too much time outdoors, indoor air pollutants may cause respiratory issues and other health complications, according to UT researchers.

Engineering Professor Richard Corsi and his team of five professors and more than twenty graduate students in the Indoor Environmental Science and Engineering Program are studying the many aspects of indoor air quality.

Corsi said humans spend approximately 72 years of their lives indoors, so most of the exposure to pollutants happens indoors. He said his research focuses on exposure to ozone indoors. Corsi was the president of this year’s International Society of Indoor Air Quality and Climate conference hosted by UT.

“When ozone levels go up in cities, death rates and hospital visits go up, and most exposure to ozone comes from buildings,” Corsi said. “Ozone is a really chemically reactive compound that forms new chemicals when it comes into contact with different substances. Some are harmless but some are very toxic.”

Corsi said ozone reacts negatively with carpet and most paper products, creating byproducts that can be detrimental to the respiratory system. He said he and his team are working to identify materials that remove ozone and other indoor air contaminants and to promote the use of those materials when new buildings are being made.

“We want passive removal materials that have large surface areas so they can remove as much ozone as possible, so anything on walls and ceilings is great,” Corsi said. “We found a clay that is particularly good at removing ozone and lots of other things and does not create bad byproducts.”

Brent Stephens, a civil engineering graduate student, is working on a dissertation project researching how outdoor pollutants come indoors, assessing how filters work in real environments and how central heating and air conditioning systems operate and affect indoor particle concentration.

Stephens said the air inside a building is turned over every two to three hours on average, constantly replaced by new outdoor air. He said high amounts of pollutants find their way indoors through nearly invisible cracks in a building’s seals.

Cooling and heating systems, which are the only standard ways to filter indoor air, only operate 20 to 25 percent of the time, Stephens said. He said the only way to ensure better air quality is to use more energy and keep those systems operating more frequently and to use high grade air filters.

“Essentially the more you pay more for a filter, the better it works, although the difference between medium-range filters and high-end filters is slim,” Stephens said. “At the end of the day, even in a summer in Austin, it doesn’t matter what kind of filter you have if the system doesn’t run.”

Elena Capsuto, assistant director of campus and occupational safety for the Office of Environmental Health and Safety, said the University conducts frequent indoor air testing and responds to any reported issues and concerns to ensure the high-grade quality of indoor air.

Capsuto said the University has licensed mold, lead and asbestos inspectors and a certified industrial hygienist on site.

She said there was mold found in some University buildings because of water leakage but could not release those building names until reports are officially sent out. She said the University recently tested for asbestos and lead in three buildings and is awaiting the reports.

“It is fairly common that we run these tests, especially in buildings that are not brand new,” Capsuto said. “We want to ensure the safety of our work force so we test them before they do any invasive work.”