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Do We Breathe the Same Air? Research Aims to Uncover Disparities in Indoor Pollution

Given a choice between inhaling the scent of roasted meat and vegetables or breathing smog from a large industrial area, most people would choose the former. However, the simple act of roasting food indoors, especially with gas burners, can create indoor pollution worse than that measured in many large cities.

Three faculty members at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville—Professor Qiang He and Assistant Professor Shuai Li, both in the the Tickle College of Engineering’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Associate Professor of Social Work Courtney M. Cronley—received a seed grant from the Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment to better understand the indoor human exposome.

The indoor exposome is made up of the entirety of pollutants people take in while indoors. It includes numerous chemical, physical, and biological contaminants, such as microorganisms and particulates, that can shed light on health risks and disparities.

Unlike outdoor pollution, indoor pollution is not regulated. It can greatly exacerbate health conditions and decrease life expectancy, however. Where cooking takes place, the culprit is PM2.5, or particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometers in size.

These microscopic particles of soot, dust, and oil, together with whatever toxins they might be carrying, enter the lungs and can pass into the bloodstream due to their small size. Just as the COVID-19 pandemic exposed health disparities among race and class lines, exposure to pollutants such as PM2.5 is linked with environmental inequality.

By creating a personalized device that can be worn throughout the day, the team hopes to continuously track pollutant exposure. As a person is going about their routine, pollutants are sampled for later analysis in a lab.

Professor Qiang He

“Since the exposome plays important roles in human health, particularly in the development and progression of diseases such as cancer, infectious diseases, and chronic inflammatory diseases, this research could help by understanding exposures that a person might have greater control over,” said He.

Since humans spend up to 90 percent of their time indoors, it’s worthwhile to study the exposome. There are many linkages between environmental exposure and socioeconomic determinants, and the team hopes that any research identifying disparities in the indoor exposome be used to develop strategies to reduce environmental inequity and improve public health.