Building Technologies

Video: Detecting personal air pollution in the office with sensors

04 October 2019

A team of engineers from Purdue University is studying how workers contribute to air pollution in the office and how buildings can be designed and operated to control this pollution.

The team tested air pollution in office spaces — just based on how people breathe or what deodorant they wear — in buildings rigged with thousands of sensors that identify indoor air contaminants and recommend ways to control them.

"If we want to provide better air quality for office workers to improve their productivity, it is important to first understand what's in the air and what factors influence the emissions and removal of pollutants," said Brandon Boor, an assistant professor of civil engineering with a courtesy appointment in environmental and ecological engineering at Purdue.

The team found that people and ventilation systems greatly impact the chemistry of indoor air, maybe more than anything else in an office. Because air quality is dynamic inside, it changes throughout the day based on how a ventilation system operates, how many people are in the office and the conditions outdoors.

The researchers used a building called the Living Labs on the Purdue campus with an array of sensors to monitor four open-plan office spaces and to track the flow of the air both indoors and outdoors through the ventilation system. The team used temperature sensors embedded into each desk chair to identify unknown behaviors of chemicals, and to determine how they transformed within ventilation systems.

"We wanted to shed light on the behind-the-scenes role ventilation systems have on the air we breathe," Boor said.

Sensors also indicated that compounds in human breath, such as isoprene, can linger in an office even after people have left the room. The team found that levels of many compounds are 10 to 20 times higher indoors than outdoors. If an office is not ventilated properly, the volatile compounds can affect worker health and productivity.

Purdue researchers also discovered that ozone from outdoors interacts with the deodorant, makeup, hair spray and even the compounds released from a peeled orange, and mix to form new, tiny particles as small as one-billionth of a meter. These could end up being toxic because they are small enough to get into the deepest regions of a person’s lungs.

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