Poor indoor environmental quality affects people of all ages, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. Unfortunately, the education of graduate students in this critical area has been almost completely lacking in the United States, despite compelling evidence that exposure to indoor pollutants poses a greater health risk than many of the other environmental issues we routinely address in U.S. graduate programs. Our nation focuses its research and education efforts almost entirely on the outdoor environment, yet Americans spend almost all of our time indoors. This disconnect must be remedied to improve the quality of the indoor environment.
Our mission is to provide a unique and interdisciplinary educational experience focused on indoor environmental science and engineering. Our program is grounded in scientific principles and the development of leadership skills for Ph.D. students committed to improving indoor environments.
We aim to serve as an international leader in the education of the next generation of leaders in the interdisciplinary field of indoor environmental science and engineering. We will do so by fostering:
- cutting-edge research,
- participation by groups under-represented in science and engineering,
- knowledge of the link between indoor environments and global sustainability, and
development of enhanced skills related to written and oral communication, mentoring, public outreach, and interdisciplinary teamwork.
Americans are indoor creatures, spending on average 18 hours indoors for every hour spent outdoors (Ott, 1995). This statistic is disturbing given recent studies that indicate that indoor environments are generally more contaminated than outdoor environments, and human exposure to toxic chemicals is dominated by activities that take place in the home (Ott and Roberts, 1998). Ironically, for the past three decades a myriad of federal and state legislation has led to a complex regulatory framework aimed at protecting the outdoor environment. Academic research motivated by and supporting these acts plays a major role in directing important policy decisions, and entire graduate programs have evolved to educate scientists, engineers, and policy makers in these fields. While there is no doubt that the health of Americans benefits as a result of regulations such as the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, the environmental quality inside of buildings receives no regulatory attention and little research funding. Academic programs are lacking to train engineers and scientists in indoor environmental quality, even as it is emerging as a critical environmental issue in the United States and elsewhere in the world. As a result, many problems go unresolved, and a plethora of new issues continue to emerge without sufficient intellectual or financial resources to solve them, or in many cases even to understand their root cause.
A key factor adversely affecting the indoor environment has been the dramatic rise in new building materials and synthetic organic chemicals used indoors since the end of World War II. Less expensive building materials that off-gas irritating and sometimes toxic chemicals and that are conducive to mold growth became the norm in the United States. Over the past four decades the amount of synthetic organic chemicals produced for household applications, e.g., wall-to-wall carpet and aromatherapy products, increased significantly, leading to a wide and complex range of indoor pollutant sources. As Americans become more aware of indoor environmental quality, we purchase millions of devices to purify indoor air by emitting ozone, a pollutant that is heavily regulated outdoors. The irony of this situation underscores the need for greater academic and public education related to indoor environmental quality.
Since the energy crisis of the mid-1970s, there has been a great demand to reduce building ventilation rates in residential, school, and commercial buildings to save energy. But the benefits in energy savings have been accompanied by a greater accumulation of pollutants emitted from indoor sources. In addition, toxins such as lead, pesticides, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and biological contaminants such as mold spores can accumulate on indoor materials such as carpet. Based on samples collected in 360 mid-western homes, Ott and Roberts (1998) concluded that, “If truckloads of dust with the same concentration of toxic chemicals as is found in most carpets were deposited outside, these locations would be considered hazardous waste dumps.”
The United States Environmental Protection Agency ranks human exposure to indoor air pollution as one of the greatest health risks to the American public; indoor air pollution has consistently ranked well above contaminants in drinking water, soil at hazardous waste sites, and outdoor air pollution as an environmental health risk. The collective risks of death or cancer due solely to exposure in residential dwellings may be as high as 5,000 to 10,000 in a million using conventional risk analysis protocols, effectively dwarfing other environmental issues in the U.S. that receive far greater attention (Corsi, 2000). There is also evidence that significant increases in asthma throughout the developed world are due, at least in part, to various biological and chemical indoor contaminants (Sundell, 2004). Further, the developing world is far from immune to poor indoor environmental quality. Recent studies indicate that respiratory infections caused by pollutants emitted from indoor cook stoves may be responsible for up to two million premature deaths each year (Smith, 2003). Finally, there is a significant economic toll that can be attributed to poor indoor environmental quality. In a benchmark study, Fisk and Rosenfeld (1997) estimated that the economic loss due to poor worker performance caused by indoor environmental pollution may exceed $250 billion/year, and this is for office workers alone. The benefits of improving indoor environmental quality have been estimated to exceed costs by a ratio of 10 to 1 (Fisk, 2001).
Indoor environmental quality is clearly important to the health of the American public but, prior to this IGERT program, educational programs in indoor environmental science and engineering had not evolved beyond a handful of academicians, and did not have the interdisciplinary collaboration needed to fully understand and resolve complex indoor environmental quality issues.