UO researchers to examine effects of climate change on indoor air quality

University of Oregon researchers and industry partners are exploring how indoor home microbial environments change -- and what that means to human health -- when whole-house weatherization projects are implemented.

The work is being done under a grant of almost $1 million from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as part of its Science to Achieve Results program and Indoor Air and Climate Change initiative. The EPA announced new funding to nine institutions (see: http://www.epa.gov/ncer/indoorair14/factsheet.pdf) to pursue studies on the effects of climate change on indoor air quality and resulting health effects.

"What's unique about this project is the way it attempts to link microbial composition and health-related factors with energy conservation and design practices like daylighting and natural ventilation," said G.Z. "Charlie" Brown, the grant's lead investigator and director of the UO's Energy Studies in Buildings Laboratory.

Brown's laboratory in the Department of Architecture and the Institute for Ecology and Evolution in the Department of Biology are teaming with the Eugene-based Oregon Research Institute and Clean Energy Works Oregon, the state's largest non-profit home performance provider, on the project.

The project grew out of Brown's collaboration with biologists Jessica Green and Brendan Bohannan as co-investigators of the UO's Alfred P. Sloan Foundation-funded Biology and the Built Environment Center. The BioBE center will study the microbial communities in indoor and outdoor zones of the houses used in the study. The work will contribute to the growing knowledge on how healthy buildings and microbial diversity can support physical health and immunity.

A total of 72 sample Oregon homes will be selected from the cities of Portland and Bend. These two locations will allow the research team to study the influence of different geographical locations and climate conditions on specific indoor-air-quality indicators during winter and summer seasons.

In addition, co-lead investigator Deborah Johnson-Shelton of the Oregon Research Institute will survey of 218 households in these two cities. Participants will be selected from those planning home weatherization improvements with the support of Clean Energy Works Oregon.

The survey will document the current use of each home's ventilation system and other factors regarding health and energy savings goals. This information combined with biological sampling from inside the houses and adjacent outdoor air will be help researchers identify the impacts of air quality using both mechanical and natural ventilation systems.

"We are not looking for bad microbes, for example, we are looking for good microbes," said Brown, a Philip H. Knight Professor in the School of Architecture and Allied Arts. "A lot of work has been done on pathogens. Only recently have scientists approached this with the idea that some microbes are good for you."

The project's findings will be useful for homeowners, building contractors, architects, design professionals and agencies that administer weatherization programs. The results will show how ventilation-system design in weatherized homes influences exposure to airborne outdoor microorganisms.

"Right now, the way we solve air quality problems in buildings is to increase the ventilation rate," said Brown. "Since most buildings are mechanically ventilated, increasing the amount of ventilation increases energy use. Natural ventilation has potential of increasing ventilation rates at a lower energy cost."

Brown and his team are looking for sustainable practices to promote energy efficiency in residential buildings and improve air quality and human health. "We want to find ways to do both -- how to both control microorganisms and how we can do it efficiently from an energy perspective," he said.

"This work combines two streams of research together in one project," said Judith Sheine, head of the UO Department of Architecture. "It incorporates years of building science research conducted by the Energy Studies in Buildings Lab on passive heating and cooling with newer research on microbial ecology and environments."

This approach, she added, has helped put the department on the leading edge of research on the built environment.

The UO's architecture program is recognized as number one in the nation for sustainable design education practices and principles. It has been recognized multiple times as the leader in sustainable design education among the 154 accredited architecture programs in the U.S. The most-recent rankings appeared in America's Best Architecture and Design Schools 2015.

Source: University of Oregon

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