EPA Science to Achieve Results

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: https://iaqscience.lbl.gov/voc-svocs

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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This Week in EPA Science

By Kacey FitzpatrickBike with Recap wheels

It’s Bike to Work Day! Did you ride your bike to work? Way to go! Now you can sit back, relax, and catch up on the latest in EPA science.

And if you didn’t bike to work—that’s okay, I didn’t either. But you can still enjoy the Recap.

Supporting Undergraduate Research
For more than 30 years, EPA has been supporting and encouraging undergraduates in environmental-related fields through the Greater Research Opportunities (GRO) Fellowship program. EPA just announced that GRO fellowships were awarded to 34 students who are majoring in environmental science, engineering, mathematics, and technology all across the nation. Read more about the fellowships in the blog GROing Above and Beyond.

Chemical Safety Research
EPA researchers are using new technology to improve computational exposure science, which helps create a more complete picture of how and in what amounts chemicals enter our bodies. Learn more about this research in the Science Matters article Improved Methods for Estimating Chemical Exposure.

Science to Achieve Results
Do you want to study how air pollution contributes to the development of cardiovascular disease? Then check out our latest Science to Achieve Results funding opportunity. You can learn more by looking at the Long-term Exposure to Air Pollution and Development of Cardiovascular Disease research grants page.

National Wetland Condition Assessment
This month EPA released the National Wetland Condition Assessment, a collaborative survey of our Nation’s wetlands. The survey examined the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of wetlands through a set of commonly used and widely accepted indicators. Learn more about the assessment here.

Stormwater Management in Response to Climate Change Impact
EPA and NOAA have led workshops and other community efforts across the Chesapeake Bay and Great Lakes regions to discuss how projected land use and climate change could impact local water conditions. This week EPA released a final report containing findings from these workshops. Read more in the report Stormwater Management in Response to Climate Change Impacts: Lessons from the Chesapeake Bay and Great Lakes Regions.

About the Author: Kacey Fitzpatrick is a student contractor and writer working with the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. She is a regular contributor to It All Starts with Science and the founding writer of “The Research Recap.”

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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Technical Models Informed by Indigenous Cultural Values

November is Native American Heritage month. Throughout the month, we will be featuring blogs by EPA and EPA-supported Native American environmental and public health researchers, and about issues related to Tribal Science.

Technical Models Informed by Indigenous Cultural Values

By Len Necefer

Researcher interviewing a women.

Len Necefer conducting surveys with the Navajo Nation.

Growing up in the Navajo Nation, I learned firsthand about the link between the environment and the health of our people. A nonsmoker, my grandfather developed silicosis and had his entire left lung removed at the age of 45, the result of years of unsafe uranium mining practices typical across the Navajo Nation. His health problems were complicated later in life by poor air quality from large coal power plants in the region.

While both uranium and coal provide significant revenue and employment for the tribe, I believed that there must be a way to develop energy resources with fewer consequences to the environment and its people. I believed there could be a way to draw upon the Navajo teachings from my family about my responsibilities to the environment to guide this new path.

I was awarded an EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Fellowship in 2012 to pursue my doctoral work at Carnegie Mellon University. My dissertation is focused on developing technical decision tools to help tribal policy makers make more informed decisions on future energy resource development. The tool will track and display culturally-relevant outcomes from different environmental decisions, such as specific impacts on land and water resources uniquely important to the Navajo Nation cultural practices, such as sacred sites and medicinal herbs.

The technical model that I am developing has already been used to illuminate the long-term environmental impacts of energy resource management policies. It will be building upon Tools for Energy Modeling Optimization and Assessment, to consider non-technical factors of energy resource management decisions.

While the technical model provides a necessary framework for assessing different energy resource management pathways, it is important to understand what the Navajo public understands about these issues and what cultural values inform their opinions. In order to understand these perspectives, I conducted interviews and surveys in the Navajo Nation community. In addition to my studies at Carnegie Mellon, I have continued learning about ceremonial traditions in order to accurately represent Navajo perspectives on the environment.

I hope to extend this tool to help other American Indian and Alaskan Native groups make better informed, lower impact energy resource management decisions that are consistent with their own unique cultural values.

About the Author: Former EPA STAR fellow Len Necefer is a member of the Navajo Nation in the southwestern United States. He graduated from the University of Kansas in 2012 with an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering. His doctoral research at Carnegie Mellon University focuses on the intersection between technical and social issues of energy resources, climate change, and sustainability of native nations.


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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One Career (of many) Built by the EPA STAR Program

By: David Cwiertny

I wouldn’t be the environmental engineer that I am today without the EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program, which funds research grants and graduate fellowships in environmental science and engineering disciplines. The research funded through this program complements EPA’s own, and that of other federal agencies, to help protect human health and the environment.

In 2004, I was entering the fourth year of my doctoral research at Johns Hopkins University.  As often happens near the end of a doctorate, my funding had dried up.  Finding new support was stressful and diverted my attention from research.  The EPA STAR graduate fellowship allowed me the financial and intellectual freedom to pursue my priority: development of new technologies to treat contaminated groundwater.

In addition to funding my research, the EPA STAR program let me interact with other Fellows at the STAR conference, integrating me into a peer network of excellence.  And because the fellowship is very competitive, it helped me secure a tenure-track faculty position at the University of California, Riverside (UCR).  That job ultimately led to my current position at the University of Iowa, where the EPA STAR program remains a vital source of support as I continue to grow my research program.

Environmental Engineer David Cwiertny by the Iowa River.

Environmental Engineer David Cwiertny by the Iowa River.

In December 2011, I was awarded an EPA STAR grant to improve small drinking water systems.  Through this particular grant, my research program is trying to develop more efficient and cost-effect treatment technologies to improve the quantity and quality of drinking water in small, rural communities, many of which often lack adequate resources for a safe and reliable water supply.  The end result will be in-home treatment units that could be of tremendous value to the number of communities, in Iowa and beyond, that rely on private groundwater wells, many of which are compromised by pollutants such as arsenic and nitrate. During my tenure as a STAR grantee, I had the privilege of mentoring an EPA STAR Fellow, Rebekah Oulton, who received the award while working in my laboratory on related work trying to improve water and wastewater treatment technologies.

At all stages of my career, the EPA STAR program has been instrumental to my development as an environmental scientist and engineer.  EPA’s support has afforded me the flexibility and continuity to pursue my research, directly addressing current environmental challenges to our nation. I’ll forever be grateful to the investment EPA has made in me, as it has allowed me to fulfill my professional dreams and aspirations, and help protect our nation’s water resources and the health of the general public that rely on them.

About the Author:

David Cwiertny is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa. He is a former EPA STAR Graduate Fellowship recipient and conducts research currently funded by the EPA STAR program. At the University of Iowa, he is a member of the campus-wide Water Sustainability Initiative, developing interdisciplinary research, outreach and education programs intended to increase water awareness at the university, within Iowa, and across the United States.

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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Research Partnership Advancing the Science of Organic Aerosols

By Sherri Hunt

Air monitoring research site with sensors and towers

Air monitoring research site with sensors and towers

Why is there so much interest in weather forecasts, maps, smoke, planes, balloons, towers, filters, instruments, cities, and trees in Alabama this summer? At this very moment, more than 100 scientists are making measurements at multiple locations in the Southeastern U.S. to investigate a number of challenging research questions related to organic aerosols—small particles suspended in the atmosphere. These particles contribute to concentrations of particulate matter (PM), which can influence both climate and people’s health.

The Southeastern U.S. is an ideal location to study the formation and physical properties of organic aerosol since it is hot, sunny, forested, and impacted by pollution from cities. In a coordinated research effort, scientists have converged at the primary surface site in Brent, AL. They are working there throughout June and July 2013 as part of the Southern Oxidant and Aerosol Study (SOAS) and other related field campaigns, all coordinated under the Southern Atmosphere Study (SAS). Additional measurements are being made on the ground at sites in Research Triangle Park, NC, the Duke Forest, NC, and Look Rock, TN.

By using research towers, balloons, and several aircraft flying above the ground sites, scientists are taking measurements at multiple heights, making this the most detailed characterization of the southeastern atmosphere since the 1990s.

The planning for this campaign began more than two years ago as the scientific community identified the need for a rich data set in order to address pressing research questions related to how organic aerosol is formed and its impact on regional climate.  Improving the understanding of these physical and chemical properties will enable the development of more accurate models of air pollution and climate, which in turn will make more effective plans to improve air quality possible. Such scientific discoveries may enable us to better understand the atmosphere across the country and ultimately determine ways to enable more people to breathe cleaner air. They will also allow scientists to understand, anticipate, and prepare for potential future climate changes.

In order to accomplish a study of this magnitude, EPA is working together with the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and others.

EPA is also funding 13 research institutions to participate through the Agency’s Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grant program. The STAR funded researchers will leverage the measurements and equipment provided by the other partners and conduct analyses of the rich data sets collected. Funded projects include work investigating each part of the organic aerosol system, from measuring emissions and formation products, to cloud-aerosol interactions, to climate impacts of aerosols.

In addition to field measurements, laboratory experiments and modeling studies are also planned that include EPA researchers. As part of EPA’s involvement, Agency scientists are using a novel tracer method that will allow them to differentiate between man-made and natural sources of organic aerosols. The data and results will help improve our understanding of organic aerosol formation and will also be shared with other researchers.

Public open houses at the Alabama and Tennessee sites on June 19 and 21, 2013 will allow the surrounding communities an opportunity to see the state-of-the-art measurement instruments and meet researchers. Interested?  If you are in the area, please consider coming by to see what all the interest is about.

About the Author

EPA researcher Dr. Sherri Hunt

EPA researcher Dr. Sherri Hunt

Sherri Hunt, Ph.D. is the Assistant Center Director for EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy research program. Read more about Sherri and her work on her “EPA Science Matters” interview: Meet EPA Scientist Sherri Hunt, Ph.D.


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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