This question is being answered by a transdisciplinary team of researchers from engineering, nursing, medicine, and biological sciences. While the past year has been unusual, even in “normal times” most human beings spend between 70% – 90% of their day inside built environments, thus making their homes, offices/workplaces, and schools the most common source of environmental exposures to allergens, dust, viruses, bacteria and molds. Because of their smaller physical size and less mature pulmonary systems, young children are particularly vulnerable to pollution in the air they breathe: This vulnerability is worse for children who have asthma. Drs. Kerry Kinney and Juan Pedro Maestre (Civil, Environmental & Architectural Engineering) have developed a novel means for measuring indoor air pollutants by using filters placed in central heat and air conditioning (AC) systems to collect samples from indoor air – a technique they call “Filter Forensics.” With funding from the Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD), and collaborating with Dr. Sharon Horner (Nursing) long-time researcher of childhood asthma, they tested this ‘filter forensics’ approach in a rural central Texas community in the homes of families who have school-aged children: Half of the families had a child with asthma and half did not. The researchers found differences in the AC filter samples taken from homes of children who had asthma when compared to those who did not have asthma. In general, the microorganisms recovered from the AC filters in the homes of children without asthma were consistent with other studies that have started to identify protective biological exposures, whereas the AC filters in homes of children with asthma yielded more biological factors that are known to trigger or stimulate asthma symptoms.
Drs. Kinney, Maestre, Horner have expanded this work through a second HUD grant and are working with Drs. Matsui (Medicine), Rivera-Mariani (Biomedical Sciences), and Thomaz (Electrical & Computer Engineering) to expand this approach across Texas cities. Starting in Austin in the first year, they tested their remote data collection procedures that they will use in homes across Texas. Notably, this work occurred in the year before the COVID-19 pandemic. The goal of the current Healthy Homes-Texas study is to evaluate the relationships between environmental contaminants in AC filter dust, home characteristics (type of flooring, cleaning practices, home ventilation practices), and asthma severity and asthma control factors in school-aged children. Understanding the microorganisms and chemicals present in homes is an essential step toward understanding the effects these exposures have on the prevalence and severity of asthma and allergy in children. The Healthy Homes-Texas study is currently recruiting for its second phase and looking for 100 families with school-aged children who have asthma and a comparison group of children who do not have asthma. If you know someone who would be interested in participating in this study, contact the team through their webpage at:
Kerry Kinney, Ph.D., holds the L.P. Gilvin Centennial Professorship in Civil Engineering in The University of Texas at Austin Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering and is a courtesy professor in the Department of Population Health. Dr. Kinney’s cross-disciplinary research in environmental engineering and molecular biology centers on the investigation of microorganisms and contaminants in engineered systems including buildings, residential water systems and municipal wastewater systems. https://dellmed.utexas.edu/directory/kerry-kinney
Juan Pedro Maestre, Ph.D., is a research associate and lecturer in Environmental Engineering and Microbiology at The University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Maestre specialized in microbiology of the Built Environment, COVID19, and Indoor Air Quality, using molecular biology tools and low-cost sensors for solving problems in natural and human-made systems. https://www.linkedin.com/in/juanpedromaestre/
Sharon Horner, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, is a professor and researcher in School of Nursing at The University of Texas at Austin and holds the Dolores V. Sands Chair in Nursing Research and is a Fellow in the American Academy of Nursing. Dr. Horner’s research is focused on improving health of families with children. https://nursing.utexas.edu/faculty/sharon-horner