Air pollution in the outside environment is something that has been studied and measured. Indoor air quality, however, is something that has not been examined as closely, largely because there has been no easy way to measure it given the size and complexity of most existing equipment – it would likely fill a single-car garage and need several scientists to operate it.
Now, researchers at York University have designed an instrument that could more easily assess pollution levels inside homes and businesses.
Developed by York University Assistant Professor Trevor VandenBoer of the Faculty of Science along with former York Postdoctoral researcher Leigh Crilley, the total reactive nitrogen (tNr) instrument uses an oven to measure a variety of chemicals that make up indoor air pollution and is the size of a small bookcase on wheels.
In the future, the system could be loaded onto a truck and navigated through the doorways of homes and businesses to measure air quality in a kitchen, bedroom, or basement by existing professionals with training similar to energy auditors.
“The purpose of this instrument is to target emissions we know come from cooking and cleaning and have a huge impact on our indoor air quality. Managing indoor air quality involves more than just using the range hood over your gas stove, especially when your space is sealed tight for winter,” says VandenBoer.
“Some of the pollutants, or reactive nitrogen species, can come from stoves, furnaces, fireplaces, or even burning candles, but it can also come from the food you cook, such as a steak or a piece of fish. Cooking can have a large impact on the level of indoor pollutants, such as ammonia and amines.”
The researcher duo tested the tNr instrument in a commercial kitchen, known for its complex indoor environment with rapidly changing levels of pollutants. The new method was able to detect about 82% of reactive nitrogen species compared to the more passive method for testing indoor air pollution.
Although not immediately available for use, the idea is that the instrument could provide e people and businesses with a good understanding of their levels of indoor pollution so they can take steps to address it.
Researchers plan to design the open-source components of the instrument. The idea came from an earlier study where the researchers measured the indoor air quality of a home in New York and found unexpectedly high pollution levels.
“We realized we really needed new instruments to study the pollution in these spaces,” says VandenBoer. “There are still a lot of outstanding questions. For example, is the air in your indoor space safe for you to breathe? What makes indoor air good or bad? Could there be simple things we could do? These are questions that atmospheric chemists are just beginning to turn their attention to.”
- Leigh R. Crilley, Melodie Lao, Leyla Salehpoor and Trevor C. VandenBoer. An instrument to measure and speciate the total reactive nitrogen budget indoors: description and field measurements. Environmental Science: Processes and Impacts, 2023; DOI: 10.1039/D2EM00446A