Fixing sick buildings

Fixing sick buildings McGill University

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McGill Reporter
February 10, 2000 - Volume 32 Number 10
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Fixing sick buildings

| What do paint, cleaning materials, carpets, chairs, even new clothes and toys made from synthetics have in common? They can all be sources of odours that contribute to poor indoor air quality. Some can even make us sick. But few of us think twice when we bring them into our homes or workplaces.

Professors Haghighat and Farant
PHOTO: SHAUN PERRY

Concerned about the problems posed by these contaminants, a pair of professors at McGill and Concordia are sharing their expertise and lab facilties to identify and monitor sources of indoor air pollution. Occupational health professor Jean-Pierre Farant, director of the Faculty of Medicine's Environmental Research Labs, is collaborating with Professor Fariborz Haghighat, the graduate program director of Concordia's Department of Building, Civil and Environmental Engineering.

"Our two labs complement each other," explains Haghighat. Farant adds that, because labs of this type are costly, both universities benefit. In his lab, Haghighat puts samples of materials from items such as carpets or linoleum into containers, then takes air samples to see whether they emit gases. He sends the air samples over to McGill to be identified.

Indoor air quality has become an increasingly serious problem in recent years because buildings are more tightly sealed, and because people, especially children and the elderly, spend more time indoors than ever before.

Farant and Hagh-ighat suspect the increased incidence of asthma in children is related to airborne contaminants in homes and daycares, and they are planning a study to identify the chemical culprits and their sources.

Haghighat, a ventilation expert, and Farant met in 1992 and began collaborating soon after. One joint project involved monitoring air quality in 20 Montreal office buildings. Currently, they are jointly supervising several graduate students, including McGill PhD student Soheil Rastan, who is developing an instrument that can identify the main source of air contamination in a building.

"When a new building opens, people often complain about the smell," Haghighat explains. The conventional approach to finding the source of an odour is to take samples of the various materials present and test them in the lab. Rastan is developing a cup-like instrument that can sample the air next to each piece of furniture, carpet, and other potential sources in the room. The air contains a combination of all contaminants, so on-site sampling should give a more accurate picture of what goes on.

Another McGill PhD student, Alan Rossner, is perfecting a simple-to-use sensor that people can employ themselves to monitor and identify the sources of contaminants in their homes or workplaces. An earlier model of this sensor was developed at McGill several years ago and was tested on a recent space shuttle voyage by astronaut Julie Payette. Both Rossner and Rastan use the Concordia lab to double-check the findings of their sensors.

Concordia master's student Julia Popa, who is also being co-supervised, is studying the way new building materials can act as sponges, absorbing contaminants from the air and later releasing them, just as rooms can retain the smell of cigarette smoke. "She is looking at how a material absorbs a chemical and releases it later on," Haghighat explains.

McGill researchers are also studying the effects on air quality of burning wood in homes, while Farant and Haghighat are seeking funding for a major, long-term asthma study.

"It would take a three-fold approach," says Farant. "I'll be studying chemicals and biological organisms in the air, such as bacteria and mites, and Haghighat will characterize ventilation and heating systems in the homes. A physician will hand out questionnaires to gather epidemiological data, such as whether there are smokers in the home."

This article originally appeared in Concordia University's Thursday Report.

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