The Air We Breathe: Are Newer Buildings Trapping Pollutants?

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Go Green. Green Power. Keep it Green. These slogans probably sound familiar. Green is the hot thing these days and everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon. But in our rush to build green, are we inadvertently creating problems for our health? Michael Waring, recipient of a Donald D. Harrington Dissertation Fellowship, has spent the past year conducting research on the role of ozone sources on both homogeneous and heterogeneous chemistry and their effects on the formation of toxic gases and nano-particles in buildings. In layman’s terms, he’s been looking at the quality of our indoor air.

Michael Waring

Michael Waring

“Buildings consume a third of all energy use worldwide,” Waring says. “To combat global warming, we’re understandably going to make our buildings more sustainable. But in that process, we need to think of sustainability as both reducing energy demand and protecting the health of the building occupants.”

Waring’s academic background is as diverse as the air he’s studying: He has a BA in English (special honors) and economics, a BS in architectural engineering, and an MS in environmental and water resources. As a student in the Cockrell School of Engineering, Waring found he was most interested in the mechanical systems in buildings, such as heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, in addition to lighting and electrical systems. In particular, he found he enjoyed conducting experiments related to the chemistry and physics of indoor air, which led him to pursue a doctorate in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering. He found a good match for his interests in the interdisciplinary Indoor Environmental Science and Engineering research group under the direction of two renowned indoor air quality experts: his adviser, Professor Jeffrey Siegel, and the group’s director, Professor Richard Corsi.

When it comes to air quality, the United States has focused its research funding and legislation on outdoor air, with regulations such as the Clean Air Act benefiting all Americans. However, studies show that on average, we spend 18 hours indoors for every one hour spent outside. Meanwhile, many building materials and consumer products, from carpet and cubicles to air fresheners and pesticides, can contribute to a chemical cocktail of indoor pollutants. And as builders and occupants increasingly focus on saving energy, their attempt to “tighten the building” through weather-stripping and decreased ventilation keeps air inside. While this reduces the use of heating and air conditioning systems, it also means that pollutants that originate indoors are getting trapped inside.

“People normally think of air pollution as an outdoor issue,” says Waring. “But many irritating and dangerous pollutants originate inside. So as we tighten our buildings, we’re actually exposing ourselves to those pollutants for longer periods.” Waring believes we can find low-energy ways to improve the air we breathe even as we make our buildings greener, but it will require more research and a great deal of education — on the part of builders and industry experts, lawmakers and consumers — about the sources of indoor pollutants. He will continue those efforts, but in a new role: Upon his graduation in August, Waring moves to Drexel University as an architectural engineering professor.

By Kathleen Mabley
Office of Graduate Studies
July 13, 2009

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