Public Lab Wiki documentation

Indoor Air Quality Monitoring

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WhereWeBreathe 2014-Present

The Where We Breathe project will offer contributors free access to a variety of formaldehyde tracking tools via a tool Lending Library, including the tools being used in the pilot study, the PM 2.5 tool currently in development, and professional grade equipment. The project also includes a website (test site here: where community members can pair test results to the symptoms they register in an etymologically validated survey, share stories about the impact of air pollution in their communities, and find support and resources for advocacy.

WhereWeBreathe is a unique re-imagining of epidemiological research tools around community needs. It re-frames epidemiological surveys as a forum for community peer-support and knowledge building.

Rather than treat participants as research subjects, this project creates a safe and anonymous-by-default space to share stories, symptoms, and resources, while re-imagining the alliance between affected communities and researchers.

Contribute to the code on GitHub:

Wireframes for IAQ website created by Jeff Warren:


DIY formaldehyde test kit:

See the research note here


Building the phytoremediation tool:

See the research note here

Contribute to the wiki here


Why domestic air quality? Despite the long held observation that indoor chemical concentrations are generally higher than corresponding outdoor concentrations and that Americans spend ninety percent of their time indoors, the home is the last environmentally unregulated airspace in the United States. As both a major seat of exposure and regulatory void, indoor air quality is ripe for research-to-action interventions. Further, domestic exposures are often tied to racial and socioeconomic health disparities, making indoor air quality an environmental justice issue as much as it is a public health issue.

Why formaldehyde? Formaldehyde is the most common and most toxicologically understood indoor air pollutant. This chemical vapor is a gateway to understanding commonplace domestic exposures. It is used as a setting agent, binding together particle board walls, subfloors, hardboard cabinetry and adhering carpets to their backing. As a result of its prevalent use in home construction, formaldehyde is a dominant contributor to cancer risk from the indoor environment and gives rise to a broad range respiratory, dermatological and neurological pathologies.

Why manufactured housing?

Disproportionate exposure

Although understudied, research indicates that formaldehyde levels in manufactured homes are on average four times higher than those of conventional homes. These high chemical concentrations in manufactured housing are due to the high use of engineered woods that utilize formaldehyde as a binding agent, the high ratio of exterior walls to indoor airspace and minimal

_Large, understudied and underserved population _

Manufactured housing is the largest source of non-subsidized affordable housing in the United States. While the exact number of manufactured housing occupants is unknown, it its commonly estimated that 20 million lower and moderate-income Americans currently reside in manufactured housing. Manufactured homes have an outsized share of the low cost housing market, representing 1 in 6 owner-occupied housing units with costs less than $500 per month. The median net worth of households that live in manufactured housing is one-quarter of the median net worth of other households.

_Chemical awareness without resources _

Formaldehyde has been a notorious issue among manufactured housing communities for over 30 years. Recent investigative reporting such as the 60 Minutes exposé on the high rates of formaldehyde emanating from Lumber Liquidators laminate flooring have raised public concern about this chemical. This longstanding problem in conjunction with recent media attention have sparked a great deal of interest in and demand for formaldehyde test kits among manufactured housing inhabitants, yet these are precisely the groups that cannot afford testing and are not networked in a way that can build strong toxic tort cases which can lead the way towards industry and regulatory reform.

Works Cited

Gonzalez-Flesca, Norbert, André Cicolella, Matthew Bates, and Emmanuelle Bastin. 1999. “Pilot Study of Personal, Indoor and Outdoor Exposure to Benzene, Formaldehyde and Acetaldehyde.” Environmental Science and Pollution Research 6 (2): 95–102.

Khoder, M I, A A Shakour, S A Farag, and A A Abdel Hameed. 2000. “Indoor and Outdoor Formaldehyde Concentrations in Homes in Residential Areas in Greater Cairo.” Journal of Environmental Monitoring 2 (2): 123–26.

Leech, Judith A., William C. Nelson, Richard T. Burnett, Shawn Aaron, and Mark E. Raizenne. 2002. “It’s about Time: A Comparison of Canadian and American Time-Activity Patterns.” Journal of Exposure Analysis and Environmental Epidemiology 12 (6): 427–32. Accessed August 20.

Adamkiewicz, Gary, Ami R. Zota, M. Patricia Fabian, Teresa Chahine, Rhona Julien, John D. Spengler, and Jonathan I. Levy. 2011. “Moving Environmental Justice Indoors: Understanding Structural Influences on Residential Exposure Patterns in Low-Income Communities.” American Journal of Public Health 101 (Suppl 1): S238–45.

Salthammer, Tunga, Sibel Mentese, and Rainer Marutzky. 2010. “Formaldehyde in the Indoor Environment.” Chemical Reviews 110 (4): 2536–72.

Hun, Diana E., Jeffrey A. Siegel, Maria T. Morandi, Thomas H. Stock, and Richard L. Corsi. 2009. “Cancer Risk Disparities between Hispanic and Non-Hispanic White Populations: The Role of Exposure to Indoor Air Pollution.” Environmental Health Perspectives 117 (12): 1925–31.

McGwin, Gerald, Jeffrey Lienert, and John I. Kennedy. 2009. “Formaldehyde Exposure and Asthma in Children: A Systematic Review.” Environmental Health Perspectives 118 (3): 313–17.

Kilburn, Kaye H. 1994. “Neurobehavioral Impairment and Seizures from Formaldehyde.” Archives of Environmental Health: An International Journal 49 (1): 37–44.

CA OEHHA. 2001. Prioritization of Toxic Air Contaminants-- Formaldehyde. Children’s Environmental Health Protection Act. California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

2011-2012 Indoor Air Quality Mapping information


This tool is being developed to experiment with mapping indoor air quality. A Roomba--the room cleaning vacuum--is programmed to travel all around a room once it is left to roam. Therefore, it is an ideal tool to assess the quality of air through out a room.

We have attached a sensor and light system to these second-hand Roombas. When our Roomba senses a change in air quality, currently an increase in the amount of volatile organic chemicals (VOC) in the air (we use alcohol as our test VOC) it emits a different color of light. If we take a long exposure image of our Roomba as it travels through a room, we can see the path its traveled by the light it emits. In areas where there are more VOCs, the light on Roomba changes from green to blue. Looking at this image, you can easily spot an area where there could be higher concentrations of VOCs.

Currently, we use the MQ 135 air quality sensor, to detect NH3, NOx, alcohol, benzene, smoke and CO2. In the future we will try adding a sensor for formaldehyde, which is a common and potentially harmful indoor air pollutant.

The U.S. EPA provides a good introduction to indoor air quality:

There are many sources of indoor air pollution in any home. These include combustion sources such as oil, gas, kerosene, coal, wood, and tobacco products; building materials and furnishings as diverse as deteriorated, asbestos-containing insulation, wet or damp carpet, and cabinetry or furniture made of certain pressed wood products; products for household cleaning and maintenance, personal care, or hobbies; central heating and cooling systems and humidification devices; and outdoor sources such as radon, pesticides, and outdoor air pollution.

Poor indoor air quality can take many forms, including high concentrations of chemicals (like formaldehyde, radon, or carbon monoxide). Sometimes these chemicals come from the products we use (like sprays) or the materials that surround us (like carpets and vinyl flooring). Excess humidity, or inadequate ventilation or filtration, can also lead to buildups of mold, pollen, or other biological contaminants. A simple and common form of poor indoor air quality is the buildup of CO2 (carbon dioxide) in poorly ventilated rooms. This can make you feel tired and less alert but is not usually otherwise harmful.

Immediate symptoms of exposure to toxic air contaminants include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat; headaches; dizziness; and fatigue. Longer-term exposures (to lower concentrations) have been linked to chronic disorders, such as asthma.

Applications and example uses

Currently, there are very few tools for citizens to use in assessing indoor air-quality. The Toxic Mapper is our first attempt to generate DIY tools for investigating one's home environment and producing data rich images that are easy to interpret. The Toxic Mapper is still in development. We aim for it to be useful in indoor spaces such as those found in homes and schools.

This annotated image shows the basic parts for our Toxic Mapper v.1:

How to make your own

We are working on a step by step guide to Hacking your Roomba. We have produced a short video about the project:

We Also documented the Toxin-mapping Roomba Project in Montreal.

This image shows the basic parts of the Toxic Mapper V.1:

Wiring for the Toxic Mapper V.1 to connect VOC sensor to LED so the light color changes based on the sensor readings:

Close up image of wiring:

Arduino Code for VOC sensor in the Toxic Mapper V.1:

How to use it

Get involved! * Research is actively being done on this project by Jae Ok Lee and Byeongwon Ha in The RISD Environmental Justice Research Cluster in Providence. * and places to start contributing- * Hack your roomba! * Help us develop documentation. * advise us on indoor air-pollution issues? * List next steps: * Our next step is to try a formaldehyde rather than VOC sensor on the Toxic Mapper: More information on Formaldehyde * We also aim to sync up the Toxic Mapper's movements to the sensor speed. The Roomba moves much too fast to produce good readings -- the sensors take 15-30 seconds to detect anything -- so the group is working on a few ways to slow down the robot. One is to mechanically gear down the wheels with a kind of "scooter": Roomba scooter to slow it down The second is to use a more recent model of Roomba whose speed is programmable. We have purchased a Roomba 530 model and will be attempting to slow it down computationally rather than mechanically.