The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has awarded the University of Colorado Boulder $1 million to evaluate the impacts of climate change, including increased wildfires, on indoor air quality and health in low-income Denver area neighborhoods.
A team of faculty and students will evaluate the effects of weatherization programs, including changes in respiratory health that may be tied to indoor air pollution created by wildfires, said CU-Boulder Professor Shelly Miller, principal investigator on the project. Studies have shown that as temperatures in Colorado and the West rise from manmade, heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and drought conditions continue, wildfires will continue to increase.
The team will be using sensors to measure particulate matter in homes under study, including levels of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, particulate matter and formaldehyde during the three-year study, said Miller of mechanical engineering. Such compounds, which can pose a significant threat to human health, are regularly released through chemical reactions created by wildfires.
Miller said the researchers would measure the “tightness” of Denver area residences that have been retrofitted to reduce energy consumption by limiting the exchange of outside air. While such well-sealed or “tight” homes may help keep out pollutants tied to wildfires, they require adequate ventilation systems to ensure such pollutants do not accumulate indoors, said Miller.
“One of our goals is to determine the best way to tighten homes to save energy, which is very important,” said Miller, who also is affiliated with the CU-Denver School of Public Health. “But it needs to be done in a way that keeps the indoor air environment healthy.”
The team will be conducting “blower door” tests that involve mounting powerful fans to the frames of exterior doors. The fans pull air out of the home and lower the air pressure inside. The higher outside air pressure then flows in through all unsealed cracks and openings in the home. Airflows and pressure differences are measured by the researchers and used to estimate air leakage, she said.
Miller, who also teaches in CU-Boulder’s Environmental Engineering Undergraduate Program, said indoor air pollution research is critical to improving the health of people around the world.
“We’re exposed to air pollutants every day, which can shorten our lives considerably depending on the levels,” she said. “Understanding that link and how we can improve air quality and the quality of our health is important.”
Miller’s research team is currently focused on identifying homes for the new EPA study.
“This is a really challenging project, and we are thrilled to be able to do it in Colorado,” she said. “We need to find the right homes in the right communities that would really benefit from such a study.”
The group has been in contact with the Colorado Energy Office and local nonprofit organizations to identify and select homes for the study.