Chemical Safety for Sustainability research

Indoor Chemical Exposure: Novel Research for the 21st Century

By Meridith M. Fry, Ph.D.

While it is widely known that nearly every consumer product contains chemicals, have you ever wondered what chemicals lurk inside your home or office building?  Semivolatile organic compounds (SVOCs) are chemicals found indoors in the air and on surfaces that come from cleaning products, personal care products, pesticides, furnishings, and electronics. They are released slowly into the air and can attach to surfaces or airborne particles, allowing them to enter the body by inhalation, ingestion, or absorption through the skin.  Because SVOCs can persist indoors for weeks to years, they also may contribute to prolonged human exposure. In fact, individuals in the US have measureable levels of more than 100 SVOCs in their body at any given time.

cleaning equipment isolated on white backgroundThe health effects from exposure to SVOCs vary depending on the particular SVOC, the length of exposure, and personal susceptibility. SVOCs have been associated with allergies, asthma, endocrine and thyroid disruption, reproductive toxicity, and fetal and child development delays. Given the significance of these health effects, we’re funding research to learn more about SVOC exposure and how we can reduce it.

Through our Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Grants for New Methods in 21st Century Exposure Science, researchers from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and the University of Michigan are making great strides in developing new methods for measuring indoor exposure to SVOCs:

  • A new, simple method has been developed by researchers from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University to determine vapor pressure, an important yet uncertain chemical property of SVOCs. Vapor pressure is a measure of the tendency of these chemicals to escape (from a liquid or solid) into the air.  With better vapor pressure estimates, our understanding of how SVOCs move indoors will greatly improve.
  • Researchers from the University of Michigan are also developing a novel, portable device to rapidly measure hundreds of SVOCs indoors. This research has already spurred applications for three new patents and resulted in four peer-reviewed publications.  Milestones include the development of a micro-photoionization detector (PID) to identify which chemicals are present in the air, a miniaturized helium discharge PID that also offers rapid measurement, low power consumption, and a fast warm-up time, and an automated, portable gas chromatography system to measure chemicals in water.  These new instruments can be easily carried in the field and used on-site, revolutionizing current measurement technology which tends to be bulky and non-portable.

The research and findings from these STAR grants will continue to shape exposure science in the 21st Century, and increase our knowledge about SVOCs and how they affect our everyday lives.  STAR grantees from the University of California Davis, Duke University, and University of California San Francisco also are making substantial contributions to our understanding of SVOC exposure such as developing new methods to measure SVOCs in indoor dust, exposures in children, and exposures in pregnant women.  We are eager to continue sharing these groundbreaking achievements as they become available.


Weschler, C.J. and W.W. Nazaroff, Semivolatile organic compounds in indoor environments. Atmospheric Environment, 2008. 42(40): p. 9018-9040.

Xu, Y. and J. Zhang, Understanding SVOCs. ASHRAE Journal, 2011. 53(12): p. 121-125.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Indoor Environment Group, SVOCs and Health, 2016. Available:

About the Author:  Meridith Fry is an Environmental Engineer and Project Officer in EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research, Chemical Safety for Sustainability Research Program.


Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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EPA Scientists Presented Open Science at White House

By Tina Bahadori

From weather forecasts, air quality advisories, and portable GPS navigation devices, to waterfowl migration, and the mapping of the human genome, the use of government and government-supported science and data have vastly improved our lives. They have also sparked countless new private businesses and industries leading to economic growth and opportunity for innovators and entrepreneurs in every region of the country.

Recognizing the power and potential of such Open Science, on June 20, 2013 the White House invited four EPA scientists—Drs. Richard Judson, Keith Houck, Matt Martin, and Ann Richard—to present research posters describing their efforts to provide public access to massive amounts of data from chemical safety studies. The scientists presented their posters after the White House’s “Champions of Change” award ceremony. The award ceremony recognized 13 Champions of Change for their efforts to provide the public access to innovative science.

In addition to the 13 Champions of Change, the White House selected 12 scientists (including the EPA researchers) to present posters describing their vision and commitment to Open Science.

EPA scientists at the White House poster session.

EPA scientists Ann Richard and Matt Martin at the White House poster session.

The select group of 25 was chosen from hundreds of nominations submitted to the White House’s request for innovative Open Science leaders. The White House event highlighted outstanding individuals, organizations, and research projects promoting and using open scientific data and publications to accelerate progress.

To exemplify Open Science work, the four EPA scientists presented how they are using advances in computational toxicology to provide open and accessible chemical safety data to help better protect human health and the environment. Each of the EPA scientists are working to harness the power of computer science and innovative new chemical safety assessment methods and tools to provide open, transparent public access to chemical information. For example:

  • Dr. Matt Martin leads a team of Agency scientists and partners who developed the Toxicity Reference database (ToxRefDB). ToxRefDB contains 30 years and $2 billion worth of pesticide registration studies. The database allows scientists and others to search and download thousands of toxicity testing results on hundreds of chemicals that were previously only available on paper or microfiche.
  • Dr. Ann Richard is the leader behind another open, accessible database, the Distributed Structure-Searchable Toxicity Database (DSSTox). DSSTox provides open-access to information on the physical and structural properties of chemicals and links this information to toxicity potential. This is key information for assessing the potential risk of chemicals to human health and the environment.
  • Dr. Richard Judson leads a team of scientists who developed the Aggregated Computational Toxicology online Resource (ACToR). ACToR is EPA’s online warehouse of all publicly available chemical data aggregated from more than 1,000 public sources on more than half a million chemicals. ACToR can be used to query a specific chemical and find available public hazard, exposure, and risk assessment data as well as previously unpublished studies related to cancer, reproductive, and developmental toxicity.
  • Dr. Keith Houck is the driving force behind EPA’s Toxicity Forecaster (ToxCast), a research program advancing the use of automated, rapid chemical tests (called “high-throughput screening assays”) to screen thousands of chemicals in more than 650 assays for toxicity potential. This includes the development of the ToxCast Database (ToxCastDB) which provides publicly accessible, searchable, and downloadable access to all the screening data generated by ToxCast.

These four scientists have led the effort to democratize access to knowledge and information and level the playing field for all those involved and interested in protecting public health and the environment. By doing so, they exemplify the spirit of Open Science celebrated by President Obama’s Champions of Change program.

About the Author: Tina Bahadori, Sc.D. is the National Program Director for EPA’s Chemical Safety for Sustainability research program.  Learn more about her on EPA’s Science Matters: Meet our Scientists web page.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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