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Interdisciplinary Team Studies Human Exposure to Toxic Chemicals in Cleaning Products


The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program in Indoor Environmental Science and Engineering at The University of Texas (UT) has catalyzed interdisciplinary research related to human exposure to toxic chemicals in cleaning products. Second-year IGERT trainees Matt Earnest (Environmental Engineering) and Sonny Rosenthal (Advertising) collaborated on a study of human exposure to toxic chemicals emitted from cleaning products, with particular attention paid to increased exposure of those in close proximity to the product while it is applied. This study originated as a term project in a course developed specifically for the NSF IGERT program on Indoor Environmental Science and Engineering, and was continued beyond the course by trainees Earnest and Rosenthal.

A novel mathematical model was developed for their analysis, and the model was applied to realistic cleaning scenarios. The value of such a model is rooted in the fact that real-time measurements of transient concentrations of toxic chemicals in the breathing zone are extremely difficult and impractical for many cleaning scenarios. Variations in cleaning product characteristics, cleaning locations, area of application and air exchange rates were considered in the analysis.

Results of this study showed that under many scenarios the person who applies a cleaning product can breathe two or more times the amount of toxic chemical emitted from the product than does someone who is in the same room but positioned away from the actual product application. The chemical composition of the product and chemical properties play an important role in the degree of increased exposure for the person who applies the product.

Trainee Matt Earnest plans to expand this research to include a more detailed analysis of how the human body affects the exposure process, including adsorption of cleaning chemicals to human skin, hair, and clothing, and near-body chemistry with ozone. Trainee Sonny Rosenthal has a particular interest in how the public learns about indoor air issues and how best to convey relevant information to the public. As such, he will focus on model results and how they can be used to better educate the public about how to avoid exposure to toxic chemicals during the use of cleaning products (beyond precautions stated on product labels). Matt and Sonny will present their findings at an international conference (Healthy Buildings 2009) in Syracuse, New York, in September 2009.

Address Goals

This study addresses discovery in that the modeling analysis completed for the study is novel and allows insights related to factors that most influence increased exposure to toxic chemicals in cleaning products in close proximity to product applications. These insights will be useful for designing strategies for reducing such exposures through product reformulations or re-labeling of product application procedures. The study addresses learning in that Sonny has learned a great deal from Matt on the development and use of mathematical models and on release of toxic chemicals from cleaning products. Matt has learned a great deal from Sonny on how the public learns about scientific issues and how information is best conveyed to the public.