Indoor Air Quality Monitoring & Mitigation
Where We Breathe
Where We Breathe is a project of Public Lab's Open Air Initiative focused on indoor formaldehyde monitoring and mitigation. There are four parts:
A DIY formaldehyde test kit: conveyed by the lending library, bought in the Public Lab store or made on your own, will detect formaldehyde down to 5ppb and yields results in a thermometer-like readout after a 30 minute sample (ie. no need to send samples to the lab).
A lending library: which will foster maximum use of test kits at a minimum price and allow for DIY devices to make inroads into the marginalized populations that need them most.
A DIY remediation kit: also conveyed by the lending library, bought in the Public Lab store or made on your own, will help reduce the atmospheric load of formaldehyde in your home by circulating air though the root system of plants known for their formaldehyde remediation capacity. This simple enhancement could increase the plant's ability to scrub the air of formaldehyde by as much as 100 times.
An online platform: where community members can pair test results to the symptoms they register in an epidemiologically validated survey, share stories about the impact of air pollution in their communities, and find support and resources for advocacy.
Why domestic air quality?
Despite the long held observation that indoor chemical concentrations are generally higher than corresponding outdoor concentrations and that Americans spend ninety percent of their time indoors, the home is the last environmentally unregulated airspace in the United States. As both a major seat of exposure and regulatory void, indoor air quality is ripe for research-to-action interventions. Further, domestic exposures are often tied to racial and socioeconomic health disparities, making indoor air quality an environmental justice issue as much as it is a public health issue.
Formaldehyde is the most common and most toxicologically understood indoor air pollutant. It is used as a setting agent, binding together particle board walls, subfloors, hardboard cabinetry and adhering carpets to their backing. As a result of its widespread use in home construction, formaldehyde is the dominant cumulative contributor to cancer risk from the indoor environment and gives rise to a broad range of respiratory, dermatological and neurological pathologies.
Where is this an issue?
By current estimates, upwards of 98 percent of new homes (up to 5.5 years old) maintain indoor formaldehyde levels capable of inducing irritation. See more on our exposure page. Elevated domestic concentrations of this chemical are commonplace from readily affordable mobile homes to high-end and tightly sealed “green homes” in California’s Silicon Valley. The energy efficiency of 'green housing' is often achieved by reducing thermal exchange between the inside and outside of the home. When more tightly sealed homes are not equipped with added ventilation chemicals can accumulate in the indoor air. Inexpensive laminate flooring, and a range of other commodities can raise the level of atmospheric formaldehyde in your home.
While we our monitoring tool focuses exclusively on formaldehyde our mitigation tool can potentially remediate a broad range of indoor toxics, including benzine, toluene, trichloroethylene and xylene depending on what plant is used in the kit.
Why manufactured housing?
Although formaldehyde is the most common toxicant across housing types, we are particularly interested in working with the inhabitants of manufactured housing for the following reasons:
1. Disproportionate exposure
Although understudied, research indicates that formaldehyde levels in manufactured homes are on average four times higher than those of conventional homes. These high chemical concentrations in manufactured housing are due to the high use of engineered woods that utilize formaldehyde as a binding agent, the high ratio of exterior walls to indoor airspace and minimal venting mean that when formaldehyde is off-gassed it stays in the home.
2. Large, understudied and underserved population
Manufactured housing is the largest source of non-subsidized affordable housing in the United States. While the exact number of manufactured housing occupants is unknown, it its commonly estimated that 20 million lower and moderate-income Americans currently reside in manufactured housing. Manufactured homes have an outsized share of the low cost housing market, representing 1 in 6 owner-occupied housing units with costs less than $500 per month. The median net worth of households that live in manufactured housing is one-quarter of the median net worth of other households.
3. Chemical awareness without resources
Formaldehyde has been a notorious issue among manufactured housing communities for over 30 years. Recent investigative reporting such as the 60 Minutes exposé on the high rates of formaldehyde emanating from Lumber Liquidators laminate flooring have raised public concern about this chemical. This longstanding problem in conjunction with recent media attention have sparked a great deal of interest in and demand for formaldehyde test kits among manufactured housing inhabitants, yet these are precisely the groups that cannot afford testing and are not networked in a way that can build strong toxic tort cases which can lead the way towards industry and regulatory reform.
The Where We Breathe Website
WhereWeBreathe.org (not yet launched) was developed to address non-place based environmental justice issues that revolve around toxic exposures emanating from distributed infrastructure (e.g. manufactured housing, flooring, natural gas compressor stations). It works by:
- re-imagining epidemiological research tools around community needs
- re-framing epidemiological surveys as a forum for community peer-support and knowledge building
Rather than treat participants as research subjects, this project creates a safe and anonymous-by-default space to share stories, symptoms, and resources, while re-imagining the alliance between affected communities and researchers.
View or contribute to the code on GitHub: https://github.com/publiclab/wherewebreathe
Mockup of Where We Breathe website created by @MelissaN and @warren:
Walkthrough of the website:
The Where We Breathe hardware
Public Lab's formaldehyde test kits combine two technologies:
- low-cost aquarium pumps calibrated for precise air sampling
- pre-made color-changing detection tubes sensitive to 0.01ppm (+/-10%) (Kitagawa 710)
The tubes in combination with a modified and calibrated aquarium pump form a testing system. Each test will run for 30 minutes, after which testers fill out a photo card and visually measure the length of the color-change on the Kitigawa tube.
Above: photo card by @warren and @nshapiro. See more photo cards here.
Using this system, we've designed two types of kits:
- completely DIY kits: we create plans and spec parts
- hardened kits for lending: we assemble and calibrate
Example of DIY kit by @nshapiro :
Lending Library Kit
Building the phytoremediation tool
We're testing ways to scrub formaldehyde from the air using plants. See the initial research note, working wiki page, and notes on field testing.
Colormetric tubes for formaldehyde detection: 710_1.pdf
Gonzalez-Flesca, Norbert, André Cicolella, Matthew Bates, and Emmanuelle Bastin. 1999. “Pilot Study of Personal, Indoor and Outdoor Exposure to Benzene, Formaldehyde and Acetaldehyde.” Environmental Science and Pollution Research 6 (2): 95–102.
Khoder, M I, A A Shakour, S A Farag, and A A Abdel Hameed. 2000. “Indoor and Outdoor Formaldehyde Concentrations in Homes in Residential Areas in Greater Cairo.” Journal of Environmental Monitoring 2 (2): 123–26.
Leech, Judith A., William C. Nelson, Richard T. Burnett, Shawn Aaron, and Mark E. Raizenne. 2002. “It’s about Time: A Comparison of Canadian and American Time-Activity Patterns.” Journal of Exposure Analysis and Environmental Epidemiology 12 (6): 427–32. Accessed August 20.
Adamkiewicz, Gary, Ami R. Zota, M. Patricia Fabian, Teresa Chahine, Rhona Julien, John D. Spengler, and Jonathan I. Levy. 2011. “Moving Environmental Justice Indoors: Understanding Structural Influences on Residential Exposure Patterns in Low-Income Communities.” American Journal of Public Health 101 (Suppl 1): S238–45.
Salthammer, Tunga, Sibel Mentese, and Rainer Marutzky. 2010. “Formaldehyde in the Indoor Environment.” Chemical Reviews 110 (4): 2536–72.
Hun, Diana E., Jeffrey A. Siegel, Maria T. Morandi, Thomas H. Stock, and Richard L. Corsi. 2009. “Cancer Risk Disparities between Hispanic and Non-Hispanic White Populations: The Role of Exposure to Indoor Air Pollution.” Environmental Health Perspectives 117 (12): 1925–31.
McGwin, Gerald, Jeffrey Lienert, and John I. Kennedy. 2009. “Formaldehyde Exposure and Asthma in Children: A Systematic Review.” Environmental Health Perspectives 118 (3): 313–17.
Kilburn, Kaye H. 1994. “Neurobehavioral Impairment and Seizures from Formaldehyde.” Archives of Environmental Health: An International Journal 49 (1): 37–44.
CA OEHHA. 2001. Prioritization of Toxic Air Contaminants-- Formaldehyde. Children’s Environmental Health Protection Act. California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.
Looking for the older Roomba-based work? This project is located on the "Roomba" wiki: http://publiclab.org/wiki/roomba-indoor-air-quality-mapping