Indoor air quality
Safety standards and controls for monitoring outdoor air pollution are well established, and the dangers posed to human and environmental health are well recognised. Organisations such as the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) regulate air quality and ensure industry complies with environmental standards, helping us to breathe easy in outdoor environments, but what about our indoor environments?
The regulation of indoor air quality is far less stringent, even though more than 90% of our exposure to pollutants occurs indoors. For example, under Australian law, manufacturers are not required to list all the ingredients of their consumer products. Companies that manufacture air fresheners, for instance, rarely disclose all chemicals contained in their product, signalling a critical gap in air quality regulation. Additionally, consumer products used indoors typically emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), a group of pollutants that can harm human health.
Professor Anne Steinemann, from the Department of Infrastructure Engineering, is an internationally recognised expert in environmental pollutants, who is taking an interdisciplinary approach to research, to help heal our indoor air environments. Interacting with people from all over the world, Professor Steinemann recognises how a diverse range of symptoms can reveal ‘sick buildings’, including asthma, migraine headaches, congestion, seizures and gastrointestinal problems.
These sick buildings represent unhealthy indoor spaces, where air conditioning ventilation systems, moulds, and chemicals merge to form harmful cocktails. When consumer products such as air fresheners, cleaning and personal care products are added to the mix, the effect is often unpredictable. Even though these chemical cocktails are not something we can see, their effects are cumulative, sometimes subtle, and often serious.
Consumers turning to ‘green’, ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ products to avoid pollutants and their ill-effects, may be disappointed. Professor Steinemann’s research has revealed that ‘green’ products, particularly those with a fragrance, are not always better, and many contain toxic chemicals. In addition, product emissions tend to be unregulated and their marketing claims untested.
Professor Steinemann is investigating ways to improve product testing and pollutant detection, and to promote healthier products and buildings. She wants consumers to have knowledge of indoor air quality and product ingredients and to be empowered to avoid products and spaces with harmful qualities. Armed with the knowledge, the pervasive twenty-first century problem of poor indoor air quality could be overcome, making our buildings, offices, homes and other indoor environments places where we can breathe easy.
Professor Steinemann is recruiting PhD students with interests in any of the following areas: indoor air quality, consumer product emissions, health effects and exposure assessment. Other areas will also be considered.
Leader: Anne Steinemann
Sponsors: Department of the Environment CSIRO
Optimisation of resources and infrastructure
civil engineering; civil infrastructure; indoor air quality