Student Proving Walls (Even Sofas) Can Talk

Mar 04, 2009
Jon McKinney (left) and Dr. Glenn Morrison, both of Missouri S&T, want to help epidemiologists identify what's triggering diseases like asthma in children. Image: B.A. Rupert

Most college students will admit to searching their couch cushions for extra coins to do laundry. But Jon McKinney's cushion hunt isn't about finding money. He wants to help epidemiologists identify what's triggering diseases like asthma in children, and he's got the backing of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Working with Dr. Glenn Morrison, associate professor of environmental engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology, the junior is developing the science behind “building forensics,” an emerging field that lies at the outer edge of environmental engineering.

“Our goal is to identify what's happened inside a home based on the 'unique fingerprints' of the chemicals we find,” McKinney says.

The pair is using nondestructive techniques to take samples from couch cushions, drywall and even concrete to identify the concentration of chemicals that had been in the home. If successful, the technique would make it easier for scientists to reliably identify the chemical causes for many diseases.

The problem of indoor pollution has escalated in recent years as homes have been made more energy efficient, reducing the amount of natural ventilation and allowing a buildup of potentially harmful substances in the air. Many researchers believe the air found inside people's homes can be more hazardous to their health than the smog and other environmental pollutants they are exposed to during outdoor activities.

“You can choose what water you drink. You can choose what you eat. But you can't choose what air you breathe,” says McKinney, explaining his interest in the field. “This work combines nature, ecology and chemistry - all the things I like.”

The EPA estimates Americans spend roughly 90 percent of their time indoors, and indoor air pollution - caused by sources ranging from paints to cleaning solvents, personal care products to furnishings - has been linked to a wide variety of adverse health effects. Children, the elderly, and those with chronic ailments like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are particularly vulnerable, perhaps in part due to their weaker immune systems and increased time spent indoors.

Many people don't realize the amount of chemicals they introduce into their homes every day. For example, dry-cleaned clothes can emit perchloroethylene, a chemical that has been shown to cause cancer in animals. Studies indicate that people breathe low levels of this chemical in homes where dry-cleaned goods are stored.

McKinney is currently establishing the “fingerprint” of chemicals in the type of foam materials that are commonly present in furniture cushions.

McKinney of Kansas City, Mo., and a junior in environmental engineering at Missouri S&T, is receiving more than $45,000 to support his education and research through the EPA's Greater Research Opportunities Research Fellowship. Prior to receiving the fellowship, McKinney received funding for his research through Morrison's National Science Foundation CAREER award, which recognizes a young researcher's dual commitment to scholarship and education.

Provided by Missouri University of Science and Technology

Explore further: Entrepreneur builds a sleek ship, but will anyone buy it?

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Finding innovative solutions for reducing CO2 emissions

Dec 19, 2014

Today, the company Gaznat SA and EPFL signed an agreement for the creation of two new research chairs. The first one will study ways to seize carbon dioxide (CO2) at its production source and increase its value ...

Confucian thought and China's environmental dilemmas

Dec 18, 2014

Conventional wisdom holds that China - the world's most populous country - is an inveterate polluter, that it puts economic goals above conservation in every instance. So China's recent moves toward an apparent ...

Improving forecasts for rain-on-snow flooding

Dec 18, 2014

Many of the worst West Coast winter floods pack a double punch. Heavy rains and melting snow wash down the mountains together to breach riverbanks, wash out roads and flood buildings.

Imaging the chemistry of the global atmosphere

Dec 16, 2014

With an airborne, globe-spanning study of the Earth's atmosphere, a Harvard-led team hopes to establish how air pollution from human activities reacts with greenhouse gases. The findings will develop the ...

Recommended for you

Off-world manufacturing is a go with space printer

Dec 20, 2014

On Friday, the BBC reported on a NASA email exchange with a space station which involved astronauts on the International Space Station using their 3-D printer to make a wrench from instructions sent up in ...

First drone in Nevada test program crashes in demo

Dec 19, 2014

A drone testing program in Nevada is off to a bumpy start after the first unmanned aircraft authorized to fly without Federal Aviation Administration supervision crashed during a ceremony in Boulder City.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.