Olive oil, vacuum cleaners and clothes dryers were among the indoor air pollution culprits Utah homeowners identified when researchers gave them air monitors and asked them to keep track of what they were doing when the air got dirty.
“You learn things from your individual environment from having these air sensors available,” said Jason Wiese, an assistant professor at the University of Utah who authored the study.
Researchers placed air quality monitors in six Utah homes belonging to families with at least one member who suffers from asthma. Families were able to view readings and get alerts when surges in fine particulate matter were detected. They then told researchers what they were doing in the house.
"These are very health-conscious, air-conscious people because they have asthmatics in their families," said Wiese, who teaches in the university's School of Computing.
The participants consistently labeled spikes in pollution, which, over time, clarified the causes. In one home, a woman discovered that pollution surged when she cooked with olive oil, so she experimented with other cooking oils with higher smoke points and settled on avocado oil, Wiese said.
Another participant, who habitually vacuumed whenever a friend with allergies visited, learned that her vacuum cleaner kicked up so much dust that it made the air worse for her friend, Wiese said. She now cleans several hours before her friend visits, Wiese said.
“There was a difference by household to some extent,” he said. “For example ... other participants also vacuumed and didn’t have same [problem].”
The point of the monitors wasn't to identify common causes of air pollution in all homes, but to give individual families a chance to see what was worsening air in their own homes, Wiese said.
"Part of the innovation was getting participants to be engaged in labeling these [spikes]," he said. "Without the label — 'vacuuming was what was going on right here' — it doesn't make sense."
It’s probably not realistic to give up cooking or cleaning, but monitoring could help families identify tasks that should be done when people with respiratory ailments aren’t there. Monitoring systems could also be integrated one day with health care to resolve recurring problems.