A new way to measure allergens in your home

Posted: January 5, 2021

The concept of pollutants typically invokes images of the outdoors, with smog-filled skies and massive smokestacks. However, indoor air pollutants also pose a serious threat. We spend 90% of our time indoors — potentially more during the COVID-19 pandemic. Chemical contaminants, irritants and allergens in the indoor environment can cause health effects, especially for those who suffer from allergies or asthma. Unfortunately, most people do not yet have an easily accessible way to measure allergens in their home to better understand ways to improve their health.

Karen Dannemiller demonstrates BREATHE Smart application.
Dr. Karen Dannemiller demonstrates a version of the BREATHE-Smart app.

Karen Dannemiller, an assistant professor in civil, environmental and geodetic engineering and environmental health sciences, and her research team work to combat this problem with BREATHE-Smart, a smartphone-based system that detects indoor allergens and direct users to health-related resources. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded Dannemiller, a Sustainability Institute core faculty member, and her team $999,884 to further the project. 

The HUD grant will support work to both develop and validate a smartphone-based system for allergen detection in homes. The first phase centers around establishment and development, while the second will emphasize field validation and verification that the technology works on a large scale. The system can distinguish specific allergens and air contaminants quickly and easily. The smartphone technology also allows for accessibility and convenience. Eventually, it could direct users to community health resources and education to help them remediate indoor air quality problems, and, when finalized, will provide nurses an additional tool to help identify exposure and prioritize remediation resources.

 

When children have repeated patterns of hospitalization or other dramatic onsets of breathing problems, nurses take note. They pay house visits to create asthma action plans, discuss medication use and examine the indoor environment. These examinations have significant limitations and mostly rely on visual inspections or asking questions to unearth the root of the problem. For a more technical analysis, the nurses lug a machine similar to a vacuum cleaner into the house, and once results are sent to the labs, it can take weeks to get them back — precious time that some children can’t afford. BREATHE-Smart changes this.

“With our new system, we should be able to go in the home and, in a short period of time, get information on the spot so nurses can help advise these patients,” Dannemiller says.

The nurses receive the data within minutes, allowing them to create targeted interventions tailored to the unique needs of each family. The process remains the same, just facilitated by the new technology to further optimize the use of limited resources.

Dannemiller has done extensive work on indoor microbiomes. She has always been interested in the topic, wanting to know more and how to measure related information.  

“Sometimes students come to me and ask what direction to go in their studies and careers. I tell them to consider what they think about when their mind wanders, like when they brush their teeth in the morning. What bothers them? For me, that has always been indoor environmental exposure,” Dannemiller says.

Karen Dannemiller demonstrates BREATHE Smart application.

After coming to Ohio State in January 2016, she researched a variety of topics ranging from the effect of mold on childhood asthma to how the presence of carpet or moisture changes a house’s microbiology and chemistry. Her background involves many academic disciplines, including engineering, environmental public health and microbiology. 

“I like to work at the interface of a lot of different fields and bring the best parts of them together,” Dannemiller explains.  “Especially if it means that we can help kids with asthma.”

BREATHE-Smart itself brings interdisciplinary collaboration to address this important societal challenge. Besides Dannemiller, key Ohio State colleagues include Perena Gouma, professor of materials science and engineering and Sustainability Institute affiliated faculty, and Rongjun Qin, assistant professor in civil, environmental and geodetic engineering and computer and electrical engineering and a Sustainability Institute core faculty member. Nick Shapiro, an assistant professor from the Institute for Society and Genetics at University at University of California Los Angeles, and Matt Perzanowski, associate professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University, also have contributed to the project. In addition, student researchers play a crucial role in advancing the research. The team is also working with clinicians at the Asthma Express program at Nationwide Children’s Hospital Homecare for patient recruitment and to improve usability of the system.

The BREATHE-Smart team plans to eventually launch the product commercially so it can be available for widespread use. The team is already working with an industry partner, Indoor Biotechnologies.

Work on this project has the potential to develop additional research questions.

“A lot of the projects that we’re doing answer one question and create 10 more,” Dannemiller says. “There’s no scarcity of really important and relevant research questions.”

The answers to the questions will provide valuable information to create a safer world for children with asthma.

Visit Professor Dannemiller's Indoor Environmental Quality Laboratory

-  by Aurora Ellis, student communications assistant at the Sustainability Institute at Ohio State

Category: Research