When Indoor Air Becomes Personal: One Scientist's Personal Journey, Struggles With Indoor Air Quality

Improving the quality of life for people, especially those disproportionately impacted by disease, the environment, poverty or other life circumstances is one of the basic goals I always work to accomplish with my social, academic and professional pursuits. Along with this goal, I have tried to choose activities that are in line with the principles that my parents taught. These include the importance of faith, importance of family, hard work, honesty, manners, sharing, respecting all people, remembering where you come from and that you are standing on someone’s shoulders with each upward step. In addition, they instilled in me the rule to first do no harm, never taking anything or anyone for granted, and take time to enjoy life and all you do with it. All of these ideals and goals have led me down many interesting paths including my current path in EPA’s Indoor Environments Division, better known as IED. My work here not only has the potential to help improve the quality of life for people, including those disproportionately impacted, but also depends on many of the principles I was taught as a child.

IED is a non-regulatory part of EPA with the mission to improve indoor environmental quality and its impact on health and well-being of indoor occupants. Many times, the people we serve are not aware that their problems might stem from things in the indoors or they don’t know how to address or mitigate issues or how to help themselves live healthier lives indoors. Others need help in building or modifying buildings to protect from potential indoor air quality problems in the future. Since we do not regulate and cannot force by legal statutes people to change, it is important that we not only have strong credible science behind our messages, but that we use all of the basic principles I was taught by my parents to motivate change.

Combining my academic training in chemistry, mathematics, and public health with my interest in theater and the arts, as part of the science team in IED, I get a chance to not only review and analyze the science but identify where there are gaps in what we know. I also get to work on projects that impact everyday consumers just like me and my family. I get to be on stage when I provide outreach through public speaking and with the help of some very talented artists and public relation specialist create public documents to spread our messages. One of my primary areas of focus is pollutants and sources with a special emphasis on consumer products and building materials. I really enjoy this work because I am getting to research and address issues (all the techie stuff I love) but also input into the awareness and understanding of the everyday person like myself and my family. I often get to talk to teachers like the ones who work in my son’s school or elderly people like my mother, or homeowners like my husband and I who just want to understand and know how to make good choices for our family’s air quality and health.

People spend as much as 90 percent of their time indoors where some contaminant levels may be much higher than they are outdoors. All of us can be impacted by what we breathe inside of our homes, cars and workspaces. It can be very simple in most cases to control our exposure through source control and ventilation with fresh outdoor air, but most of us do not know enough about the potential problems or how to mitigate effectively. I encourage you to discover more about your indoor environment, what you might be breathing, and how you can limit any potential harm from indoor air quality concerns by visiting EPA’s Indoor Environments Web site.

About the author: Laureen Burton works as a chemist and toxicologist in EPA’s Office of Radiation and Indoor Air, Indoor Environments Division. Since 1997, she has worked not only to advance the science behind indoor air quality, but also to increase the public’s understanding of the indoor environment and how it can impact the health and comfort of people.