More than 1,000 researchers attended Indoor Air 2011, a triennial conference series hosted in Austin for the first time since the event began in 1978. Photos by Jerry Hughes.

The world's leading experts on indoor air quality addressed topics such as how a contaminant found in dust can affect an unborn child in the womb and how the proximity of a person's car to his or her home can increase cancer risks at Indoor Air 2011, a triennial conference series in Austin, June 5-10.

The five-day conference attracted more than 1,000 researchers from 47 countries whose research focuses on major challenges facing the indoor air and climate community. The conference was organized by the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Center for Lifelong Engineering Education, and provided researchers, practitioners and students the chance to present research findings and exchange ideas.

The conference was also a showcase for Austin and the Cockrell School’s Building Energy and Environments (BEE) program.

“We are thrilled that the University of Texas was selected to host Indoor Air 2011 and believe that our selection is a testament to the strength of our unique building energy and environments program that we have created at UT over the past decade," said Dr. Richard Corsi, a professor in civil, architectural and environmental engineering, who served as president of the conference and is director of a unique interdisciplinary doctoral traineeship program on Indoor Environmental Science and Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin. "Almost anyone around the world who does research on indoor air quality comes to this prestigious conference.”

Research findings presented by Cockrell School students and faculty included a study which found one six-month deployment to the Middle East can increase the lifetime particulate matter dose for a military member by up to 7 percent. Exposure to particulate matter can increase risks for cardiovascular disease and respiratory illnesses such as asthma and allergenic rhinitis. Josh Aldred, a Captain in the U.S. Air Force and former Cockrell School student who served in the Middle East and presented the study, said military personnel face increased exposure to the pollutant because of frequent dust storms in the Middle East, burning trash, field latrines and combustion byproducts present in combat.

But because Americans spend on average 90 percent of their time indoors, exposure to some of the most threatening hazardous materials occurs in homes and offices.

A study by BEE graduate student Brandon Boor found that many people are exposed to pollutants while they sleep. Brominated flame retardants are often added to mattresses and pillows to reduce their flammability and delay combustion. However, the retardants have been found to cause liver, thyroid, and neurodevelopmental toxicity – an alarming fact, given the average adult spends 7.5 hours in bed per night, Boor said.

He developed a bedroom model to determine the concentration and emission rate of the retardants, which will provide better understanding of the pollutant.

The conference also recognized researchers whose contributions to the indoor air quality field are having significant impact. Cockrell School Assistant Professor Ying Xu received the society’s prestigious Yaglou Award, which acknowledges outstanding work of young promising researchers within the indoor air sciences field.

Xu leads research on the effects of DEHP, an organic compound used in manufacturing and found in dust in homes. The compound can cause profound and irreversible changes in the development of the reproductive tract and can be harmful to children. A recent report by the National Academies urged that the most important sources of the pollutant's exposure be identified.

“The best ways to reduce exposure to DEHP is to keep dust levels down in your home and keep it clean,” Xu said at the conference. She added that research on the pollutant is relatively new, but already Europe and the U.S. have banned some plasticizers commonly used in children’s toys.

Another study, co-authored by Corsi, Associate Professor Jeffrey Siegel and former Cockrell School graduate student Diana Hun, found that people living in a home with an attached garage are exposed to higher levels of benzene than people who have detached garages. The cancer-causing agent, along with other chemicals, is emitted from gasoline in vehicles.

“The fact that we spend so much time inside our homes means that people with attached garages could be exposed to benzene concentrations that are 10 times higher than if we rode in a car in a congested highway,” Hun said.

Research presented at the conference also showed that indoor air quality affects more than physical health. It has an impact on people’s creativity, productivity and decision-making skills.

A study by researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that a person’s initiative and basic problem-solving strategy decreased when he or she was exposed to greater levels of carbon dioxide. The study compared the median level of carbon dioxide found in 210 California and 120 Texas classrooms with levels found in offices and meeting rooms. In both states, the level of carbon dioxide was significantly higher in schools.

Bill Fisk, a senior scientist and head of the lab’s Indoor Environment Department, asked others in attendance to consider the implications of the findings.

“Are some students being disadvantaged because of high carbon dioxide levels in classrooms?,” Fisk said.  “And do we need to maintain low carbon dioxide levels during critical college entrance exams?”

Richard Corsi holds the E. C. H. Bantel Professorship for Professional Practice.

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