The hunt for household hazards

Many researchers believe the air inside your home can be more hazardous to your health than the smog and other environmental pollutants you are exposed to outside, says Jon McKinney, a junior in environmental engineering at Missouri S&T.

Jon McKinney (left) and Glenn Morrison are finding chemical ‘fingerprints’ to improve indoor air quality.

McKinney is developing a testing method to use in “building forensics,” an emerging field that lies at the outer edge of environmental engineering. He’s working with Glenn Morrison, associate professor of environmental engineering, to help epidemiologists identify what triggers diseases like asthma in children, and he’s got the backing of the Environmental Protection Agency.
“Our goal is to identify what’s happened inside a home based on the ‘unique fingerprints’ of the chemicals we find,” says McKinney. He and Morrison are using nondestructive techniques to take samples from couch cushions, drywall and even concrete to identify the concentration of chemicals that had been in the home. If successful, the technique would make it easier for scientists to reliably identify the chemical causes for many diseases.
The problem of indoor pollution has escalated in recent years. That’s because today’s homes are more energy efficient with less natural ventilation, which results in a buildup of potentially harmful substances in the air.
“You can choose what water you drink. You can choose what you eat. But you can’t choose what air you breathe,” says McKinney, explaining his interest in the field. “This work combines nature, ecology and chemistry – all the things I like.”
The EPA estimates Americans spend roughly 90 percent of their time indoors, and indoor air pollution – caused by sources ranging from paints, cleaning solvents and personal care products to furnishings – has been linked to a wide variety of adverse health effects.
Many people don’t realize the amount of chemicals they introduce into their homes every day. For example, dry-cleaned clothes can emit perchloroethylene, a chemical that has been shown to cause cancer in animals. Studies indicate that people breathe low levels of this chemical in homes where dry-cleaned goods are stored.
McKinney is currently establishing the “fingerprint” of chemicals in the type of foam materials that are commonly present in furniture cushions.
McKinney of Kansas City, Mo., a junior in environmental engineering at Missouri S&T, is receiving more than $45,000 to support his education and research through the EPA’s Greater Research Opportunities Research Fellowship. Prior to receiving the fellowship, McKinney received funding for his research through Morrison’s National Science Foundation CAREER Award, which recognizes a young researcher’s dual commitment to scholarship and education.

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