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RTI Stories

Sick Building Syndrome and Acid Rain: RTI Plays Sleuth for the EPA

"A heavier load of chemicals than you’d find in industrial New Jersey"

RTI researcher Edo Pellizzari and his colleagues had been studying the causes and effects of indoor air pollution since their days at Love Canal in the late 1970s. By 1984, "sick building syndrome" was recognized as a potentially serious health issue. The energy crisis of the 1970s had prompted the development of more tightly sealed and heavily insulated structures to conserve energy. These new homes and office buildings, however, limited the exchange of outdoor air with indoor air, allowing potentially dangerous levels of chemicals to accumulate.

"The air inside [affected buildings] could carry a heavier load of chemicals than you'd find outdoors in industrial areas of New Jersey," Pellizzari noted at the time. The culprits included new carpeting, freshly waxed floors, recently painted walls, gas-fired ovens, and even thin films of cleaning solution left on kitchen counters.

In a year-long project for the EPA, RTI monitored seven categories of air contaminants at four locations–a new office building, a school, and two homes for the elderly. The contaminants included volatile organic compounds, formaldehyde, pesticides, nitrogen dioxide, respirable particulates, trace metals, and carbon monoxide, samples of which were collected from carpets, drapes, furniture, and waxes for evaluation at Yale University.

The data revealed very high concentrations of methyl chloroform, a volatile organic compound, following the immediate completion of a building. RTI's findings argued for increased ventilation in the first six months of a new building's occupancy. Additional contracts on indoor air pollution followed; for example, the vexing problem of toxic chemicals in indoor air later reared its head again, with the discovery of high levels of formaldehyde inside mobile homes occupied by victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Acid rain was another burgeoning area of research for RTI in the 1980s. Pollutants spewed by power plants, factories, and automobiles formed gases and particles in the atmosphere, which mixed and fell to the ground in rain, snow, sleet, or dry form and became acidic upon contact with water. RTI scientists linked these acidic pollutants to dying lakes and forests, as well as the depletion of insect and aquatic life, but more research was needed before costly regulations could be proposed.

The EPA subsequently retained RTI for a five-year study of the effects of acidic deposits on different materials. At a monitoring site on the RTI campus, researchers examined samples of stone, metal, and painted surfaces exposed to rainfall and dry acidic deposition for physical and chemical changes. Their findings resulted in national regulations requiring gas-desulfurization processes at coal-burning power plants, in order to reduce sulfur emissions.