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Science Notebook

Science Notebook: Indoor Air Quality

Interview with Greg Brunner

DP = Dale Perry (EPA, Science Notebook Coordinator)
GP = Greg Brunner (EPA, Indoor Environments Division)

DP: Hello and welcome to the Science Notebook where EPA Scientists talk science.

DP: I’m Dr. Dale Perry. For most of us, we spend a good portion of our days and nights indoors whether we’re at work, school or home. When we’re indoors, we’re exposed to air pollutants from indoor sources and air pollutants that come in from outside. Scientists have invested lots of time and resources into studying the effects of indoor air quality on our health, but where can we go to find this treasure chest of air quality science?

DP: I’m talking today with engineer Greg Brunner of EPA’s Indoor Environments Division to learn about the Indoor Air Quality Scientific Findings Resource Bank. So Greg, that’s a big long title, can you just briefly tell me what the Scientific Findings Resource Bank is?

GB: I sure can. It’s a product that has come out of an interagency agreement that the EPA has with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and it’s a Web site that summarizes information for people who are interested in linkages between indoor air quality and their health and/or work performance in either the school- or office-type environment.

DP: And how did the Resource Bank come to be? What was the thought process behind making this happen?

GB: Well, people often ask the question, why does indoor air quality matter? There has been a growing body of literature over recent years that link the effects of indoor air quality on people’s health and work performance, so we thought it would be a great idea to try to pull a lot of that information together and make it available for people who have questions about the benefits of indoor air quality.

DP: So, if I went to the site as a scientist, is it the type of place that I would be able to pull up all the scientific information?

GB: Yes. We‘ve actually got it structured in what we call a drill-down format where we have the major topics highlighted on the home page. We actually have four major topics there now and expect to add more topics later as the resources and time allow. But, when someone comes to that home page, they can see those major topics. When I said a drill down approach, what I mean is that people can get concise summary points that give them highlight information, that then if they want to dig deeper they can click down further and further to get more detailed information. There is downloadable journal articles that are from peer reviewed journals, as well as lists of some of supporting references for the studies that we have cited or made use of on the Web site.

DP: So, let’s say that I am living in my home and we have a big rainstorm, and I have a flood in my basement, and I open the door and I smell a moldy smell coming up from the basement. Is this a site that I could go to, as the public, to get more information about what might be going on in my home?

GB: It would certainly be a good starting point. For that particular example you cited, on the home page we have a link for “Indoor Dampness, Biological Contaminants and Health.” So, if somebody picked that major topic there would be a summary page that pops up, which has several highlighted sections which are short paragraphs that someone could read to try and figure out what particular information they have the most interest in and then dig a little deeper. So, with the problem you just cited, someone might want to go in and look at that section and find the heading on “Impacts of Building Dampness on Indoor Air Quality,” and then there is also another section on “Health risks of dampness or mold in houses.” That could give more information on what might be causing the problems and give someone a better idea of why the problems might exist. Then there are sections on the health risks from dampness in buildings and then we have a section called “Implications for Good Building Practices,” that tries to give the reader ideas on how to avoid the problems that might come in that particular area.

DP: It certainly sounds like there is a lot of information covering a lot of different areas. Who contributes most of the data found on the site? Where does it come from?

GB: Actually it comes from a lot of different places. The researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab who are the ones who are the principal investigators, and William Fisk is the principal investigator for the project, has an approach where they will use several different information sources. There are some times where we will make use of the existing literature from peer review journal articles that have been accumulated over the recent years. We will read through that and glean the important information that might be relevant to our Web site, and then develop summary information that then gets reviewed by outside reviewers that would try to pull all of this information together from different research reports into one easily digestible summary with detailed information and references cited, that can help people dig deeper if they want to go to the sources. There has also been work done under this agreement, by Bill Fisk and some of his other researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, where they have actually done analyses of the data and generated their own technical reports. For instance, there has been a meta-analysis done looking at the impacts of building ventilation rates on office worker performance, and that is published on the Web site and there is a downloadable journal article; as well as meta-analyses looking at all the different literature that has become available on impacts of building dampness and mold on health end points, being asthma type symptoms and respiratory symptoms. So, there is a little bit of analyzing research from outside sources, as well as then using in-house analyses to complement that.

DP: That’s a lot of scientific information pulled together by a lot of scientists. So, what if I’m a decision-maker and I need to look at this information. Is it something that would be useful for me if I have to make a decision about how to protect human health from indoor air pollutants?

GB: Yes, it could. And that is actually why we structured it in the way we did, with the drill-down format, so people can access the level of information that they think is most important. A decision maker might decide that based on the summary information and reading through one section that ventilation rates are important for their office building or their school. Based on the information presented in the Web site that shows how office work performance and school work performance will increase with increasing ventilation rates, that might be enough information for them to make the decision to adjust the ventilation rates in their buildings.

DP: What study or future research would you like to see on this site?

GB: We are constrained by our resources and we do have some things under way, but they do need to undergo the full review process. We would like to expand the dampness meta-analyses that I mentioned earlier in the interview, to look at other health end points, looking at the impacts of building dampness on bronchitis and other respiratory health symptoms.

DP: It sounds like it’s a dynamic site in that it’s always evolving and changing, and new information is always being added.

GB: That’s correct. We launched the site in the spring of 2008 with the understanding that we knew we would either be refining the existing topics as more information became available, or as our resources allowed to enable us to develop new topics that we feel might be important for people on these linkages between indoor air quality and health and performance.

DP: So, Greg, this sounds like a very exciting project, and it’s certainly very useful for the public and decision makers, alike. What is it like to be a part of a project like this? What have you learned?

GB: It has actually been a very, very valuable experience for me personally, and it has really been great to pull a lot of this information together and make it available to the public. It is a technical Web site, with the intent of giving information to the technical community as well as public health professionals and building professionals that might be working outside the field of indoor air quality. But it does feel like it is just pulling a lot of this information that has been out there into one place to make it easy for people to make use of. We have gotten good feedback from the industry groups. We were able to get a full page advertisement in the newsletter of the International Society of Indoor Air Quality and we’re continuing to try and promote the Web site to make people aware of what a good tool it really is.

DP: Well, it is great to know that so much information on indoor air quality exists and if anyone is interested in reading more, or visiting the site, you can do so at www.iaqscience.lbl.gov. Greg, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me today about this amazing resource, and thanks for all of your hard work on it as well.

GB: You’re welcome, and thank you for the interview.

DP: That’s it for this edition of the Science Notebook. For more information on this topic and science at EPA go to epa.gov/sciencenotebook.


Sound Science

Hear all about it! Scientist Greg Brunner of EPA’s Indoor Environment’s Division talks to Science Notebook Coordinator Dr. Dale Perry on what the Indoor Air Quality Scientific Findings Resource Bank is, how it came into existence and what it means for our everyday lives.

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