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Engineers, economist receive $2.9 million to establish first U.S. graduate program on indoor environmental quality

A $2.9 million multidisciplinary graduate program at The University of Texas at Austin aimed at improving indoor environments has been funded by the National Science Foundation.

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AUSTIN, Texas—A $2.9 million multidisciplinary graduate program at The University of Texas at Austin aimed at improving indoor environments has been funded by the National Science Foundation.

The novel five-year grant is intended to develop a pioneering generation of leaders in the study of indoor environmental quality, and will be led by Environmental Engineering Professor Richard Corsi. The new program is designed to spearhead the expansion of a field that has been given little attention in the United States. The effort is spurred on by studies suggesting the average American now spends 18 hours indoors for every hour spent outdoors, often exposed to higher concentrations of harmful substances than exist outside.

“The indoor environment is not the safe, clean sanctuary we thought it was,” Corsi said. “In fact, the exposure of Americans to toxic substances is dominated by what we breathe and touch while we are indoors. Ironically, our focus has been on protecting the public from toxins that exist outdoors. We really do very little in our country to improve the quality of indoor environments in non-industrial settings. We have ceded leadership of this important issue to other countries. To change that, we need more engineers, scientists, and social scientists engaged in improving knowledge related to indoor environmental quality, solving related problems and educating the public on the do’s and don’ts in their own homes.”

Air pollution is one area of concern. For instance, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers indoor radon to be the biggest exposure risk for Americans, equal to the risk of chemicals that some workers encounter on the job. Other indoor air pollutants ranked fourth.

“If you put indoor radon and indoor air pollution together, they are by far the number one environmental threat to the American public,” said Corsi, who holds the E. C. H. Bantel Professorship for Professional Practice.

Indoor air concerns led the California legislature to pass a bill in 2002 requiring the state’s Air Resources Board to study the impact of indoor air pollution on children and other vulnerable populations. This March, the board produced a report suggesting billions of dollars in health and economic savings that could result from indoor air regulation.

Doctoral students in the new program will work within interdisciplinary “cluster” groups (for example, engineers, economists, toxicologists) to address various dimensions of major indoor air quality issues. Topics they will address range from the effects of building design and materials on mold growth and remediation in buildings, children’s exposure to indoor contaminants, the effects of indoor air pollution on occupant health and material degradation, engineering solutions to indoor contamination, transmission and control of infectious diseases, and the characterization and control of under-studied sources of indoor air pollution such as aromatherapy products (candles, essential oils, etc.) and new building materials. 

The grant will provide funds for course development and for two years of support for 28 U.S. citizens or permanent residents who will pursue doctorates on the indoor environment. The students will come from many disciplines, and will conduct indoor environmental research under the guidance of faculty in the following areas: architecture, chemical engineering, civil, architectural and environmental engineering, economics, human ecology, mechanical engineering, microbiology, pharmacy, psychology and toxicology.

In addition to taking courses on indoor air, environmental psychology, environmental economics and other subjects, students will meet weekly with program faculty to exchange ideas, present research findings, discuss ethical issues and receive career assistance.

The students’ leadership training will include several major components. Students will complete two-to-six-month internships at one of several leading federal and national laboratories such as Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, develop a public outreach workshop to teach others about indoor environmental topics, spend a semester mentoring an undergraduate student through the Graduates Linked with Undergraduates in Engineering program of the College of Engineering and assist in the planning and completion of an annual symposium on indoor air held on campus.

The graduate students’ research development at the university will be further enhanced next summer, when they have access to a roughly 1,200 square-foot house on the J.J. Pickle Research Campus for studying the indoor environment. The “test house” will be built under the guidance of grant co-leader Jeffrey Siegel, an assistant professor of architectural engineering. Other grant co-leaders are Kerry Kinney, the Roberta Woods Centennial Fellow in Engineering, and Don Fullerton, the Addison Baker Duncan Centennial Professor in Economics.

For media interviews, contact Becky Rische at 512-471-7541; for student information about participating in the NSF-funded graduate training program, contact Dr. Richard Corsi at 512-475-8617.

For more information contact: Becky Rische, College of Engineering, 512-471-7272.