News – Collaboration Fund: Indoor Air Pollutants

Dr Abigail Hathway, Lecturer
Department of Civil and Structural Engineering, University of Sheffield

“I specialise in indoor environments, mainly fluid flow in the built environment. For instance urban microclimate, and the transport of contaminants in indoor spaces.

I carried out my PhD in Leeds modelling bioaerosols released in hospital environments due to nursing activities. My supervisor, Cath Noakes specialised in infection control engineering and I also worked closely with Louise Fletcher, a microbiologist in civil engineering. I then came as a post-doc to the University of Sheffield in 2008, working on an EPSRC funded sustainable urban environment project. I got my lectureship the following year and returned to my interest in indoor air.

I’d kept in touch with my supervisor and other colleagues in Leeds when the email was circulated advertising the White Rose collaboration Fund. Nic Carslaw in York had also been talking to Leeds, and had been looking for academic interest at Sheffield on the physics of buildings to complement her work on chemical pollutants in air. I got in touch with Nic and we discussed how we could connect our areas of interest; indoor air chemistry and microbiology alongside building design. Both chemical and bioaerosol levels in air are dependent on building conditions and, as far as we could tell there was no research bringing all three aspects together. We saw the gap and put together our White Rose project

Writing the proposal was an iterative process and we did it together by email. It was when we had our first meeting as a project group, that our idea became much clearer.Once we started to discuss together about how to approach the work, we became very interested in what we could measure and how we would measure it. Aswell as multiple coincident measurements we were also trying new methods of measurement, carrying out what are traditionally outdoor measurements inside. We also discovered we were all very interested in the impact of air cleaning devices on the biological and chemical contaminants in the air.

The collaboration was really positive: everyone was very capable in what they brought to the table and was equally keen to learn from each other in undertaking the experiment and measurement process together. We had the will to work together but the White Rose fund concentrated our minds and put inclination into real action. The money enabled us to buy consumables, calibrate equipment and get us together. When you are meeting to actually do something, you start to think a lot harder about how you interact.

During our initial meeting, we sorted out the methodological issues. We then ran a 2 day workshop in York, and we brought along colleagues and PhD students interested in working in this area. Air cleaning devices were the significant area of interest and sparked a lot of discussion.

We then spent a week in Leeds taking measurements in two different rooms. We measured after brushing and after using cleaning products (both surface cleaners and air cleaners) to see what impact this made on the air quality. We were particularly interested in secondary particles due to reactions between the air and the cleaning products. It was a busy week, as there were always 2 or 3 people in the room looking after the equipment. There were probably about 8 of us in all. I took a couple of PhD students with me as it was really useful for them to see how complex indoor air is.
At the moment, we’re writing up our results and it’s exciting as it’s the first time all the measurements have been done together. We’ve published an editorial in Indoor Air 2013 and also hope to publish a paper and a short note in a high impact journal.

It’s been really useful sharing expertise across the 3 Universities and the work is directly linked to my new research project that’s just about to start. I cited the White Rose collaboration in my impact statement in the proposal and both Nic and Cath are on the Project Steering Group. The data we gathered provides evidence and so we’re in a much better position to apply for further funding.

The work will act as a good basis for the future – indoor air quality will become a significant area, I think, particularly as we move towards low carbon buildings. We must keep on top of our understanding of air as we use new building materials, new cleaning products as the impact on indoor air quality tends not to be included.
In conclusion, it was really valuable to be able to get 3 different disciplines together. We should be looking at air quality more holistically and although it was only a small amount of money, it gave us the impetus to kick-start a process that is really valuable.”