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Atmospheric chemists move indoors

December 04, 2019

Most people spend the majority of their time at home, yet little is known about the air they breathe inside their houses. That's why some atmospheric chemists are turning their attention toward indoor air, using tools developed for monitoring pollutants outside. By cataloguing compounds in indoor air, scientists could someday link them with health effects, according to an article in Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), the weekly newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society.

Scientists have shown that the levels of many substances, such as volatile and semivolatile organic compounds, are substantially higher indoors than outdoors. Indoor emissions come from many sources, such as stoves, smoking, cleaning products, home furnishings and even people, Senior Correspondent Celia Henry Arnaud writes. These chemicals can react with others to form new molecules. Sunlight from windows and emissions from gas stoves often accelerate these reactions. Houses also contain many surfaces including windows, carpets, walls and furniture that can adsorb, react and re-emit compounds. And people themselves emit volatile organic compounds from their breath, skin and personal care products.

Considering the plethora of compounds in indoor air, it's not surprising that chemists have had a hard time figuring out when, where and how the substances arise. In 2018, a 4-week field study called HOMEChem -- House Observations of Microbial and Environmental Chemistry -- sought to answer some of these questions. In a manufactured house at the University of Texas at Austin, dozens of researchers from across the country systematically studied how different human activities influenced indoor air composition. Among many interesting findings, the researchers observed that the order of activities -- such as mopping and then cooking, or vice versa -- influenced indoor air chemistry. These and other studies aim to establish a baseline of what's in indoor air, so that eventually researchers can assess the potential health effects of specific compounds or groups of compounds.
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The article, "Chemists move indoors to measure the air quality in our homes," is freely available here.

The American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society, is a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. ACS is a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related information and research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. ACS does not conduct research, but publishes and publicizes peer-reviewed scientific studies. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

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