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Back in 1969—when smokestacks belched black soot and an oil slick caught fire on Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River—no one questioned the severity of pollution in the United States or debated the necessity of doing something about it. These dramatic examples of ecological abuse led Congress to establish the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970 to protect human health and safeguard the nation’s natural environment. Thirty-five years later, the country’s environmental focus is expanding to meet an unfolding problem with less flamboyant—but equally significant—effects: the air quality of our indoor spaces. “The EPA has done a tremendous job of addressing a variety of problems with water and outdoor air quality,” says Edward A. Bogucz, executive director of the Syracuse Center of Excellence (CoE) in Environmental and Energy Systems and a professor in the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS). “Now there are more subtle problems related to indoor air quality that need to be addressed. We can’t see the pollution. We can’t smell the pollution. But there is a rising public awareness that indoor air quality is a significant issue.”

Studies show that people typically spend 90 percent of their time in built environments, either in buildings or in transportation vehicles. Research also indicates that the level of contamination in indoor air is higher than outdoor air, due to a variety of factors. “The contaminants in the air in our indoor environments—including homes, offices, schools, and hospitals—may have adverse, long-term, cumulative effects on human health and productivity, which can also cause negative economic repercussions,” Bogucz says. “The issues that need to be addressed today, although they have less conspicuous symptoms, have the same potential to affect the quality of human life.”

Syracuse University plays a vital role in addressing indoor air quality issues through its leadership of the Syracuse CoE, a federation of more than 70 educational and research partner institutions and businesses, which was established by New York Governor George Pataki in 2002 to address environmental problems and enhance economic development. The center’s research activities are coordinated primarily through the Environmental Quality Systems Strategically Targeted Academic Research (EQS STAR) Center, based in Link Hall. The New York Indoor Environmental Quality (NYIEQ) Center, an independent nonprofit corporation established in 2000 by the Metropolitan Development Association of Syracuse and Central New York (MDA), works with local businesses to translate research-generated ideas into products and services that improve indoor air quality. “NYIEQ was created in recognition of the fact that there is a large concentration of environmental research and companies in the region, and that indoor environments have a profound impact on human health,” says John J. Vasselli, executive vice president of the NYIEQ Center. He calls indoor air pollution “an incredible sleeping monster” and warns that a virtually unaware public must be educated about it. “We care for our health in countless ways,” he says. “We go jogging, watch our cholesterol, and floss every day. Meanwhile, we could be breathing stuff at work or while we sleep that 10 years from now could lead to cancer or other life-threatening conditions.” Indoor air pollution generally occurs in low doses and its effects become evident only after long-term exposure, making it difficult to study. “It is hard to even correlate the problem,” Vasselli says. He cites the example of a so-called “sick building,” in which indoor air contaminants cause repeated health problems for its inhabitants. “It isn’t until the situation is very bad—when everyone in the building gets sick in the same way and the only thing they have in common is the building—that anyone makes the connection,” he says. “There are a lot of things that can harm you in very small amounts, and some of these are cumulative. We do not have the technology today to even measure for many lethal contaminants.”

“NYIEQ was created in recognition of the fact that there is a large oncentration of environmental research and companies in the region, and that indoor environments have a profound impact on human health.”

John J. Vasselli,
executive vice president, NYIEQ Center

Vasselli believes the Syracuse CoE and NYIEQ will have a major impact on improving environmental and human health—and create regional economic prosperity. “We are looking at a very important human health and productivity issue that is profoundly under-researched and under-funded,” he says. “And we are starting some interesting research projects that are unique, nationally and internationally.” National interest in the relationship between indoor air quality and health is reflected in the activities of such organizations as the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “These agencies are interested in ultra-fine particles and their relationship to cardiovascular disease and diabetes,” Vasselli says. “They are interested in the identification and elimination of asthma-triggers in indoor environments. They are exploring safer methods for lead-dust containment and removal. Today, the Syracuse CoE and NYIEQ are pursuing leading-edge projects in all these areas.” Additionally, comprehensive research by such organizations as the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society is producing evidence that links poor air quality to increased risk of heart attack, lung cancer, and other life-threatening illnesses. “These sources estimate that more than 800,000 people worldwide die each year because of poor indoor air quality associated with particulate matter,” Vasselli says. “In terms of disability-adjusted life years, more than 7.9 million years of productive life are lost worldwide each year.”

Such losses will likely result in new regulations and more research that will drive the demand for new products and services designed to detect these pollutants and eliminate their health risks, Vasselli predicts. That demand is already being addressed by collaborative partnerships formed through the Syracuse CoE and the NYIEQ Center, whose activities are expected to create or retain thousands of jobs in the Syracuse area in the near future. Additionally, the NYIEQ Center awarded local businesses more than $700,000 during the past three years through the Commercialization Assistance Program (CAP). Established in 2002 in partnership with the MDA, CAP provides grants, received through the efforts of New York Assemblyman William Magnarelli, to local companies that are developing products to improve air quality. “We believe so strongly in the economic potential of this work that we have set the creation of jobs as one of the goals against which we measure our progress,” Vasselli says.

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Chancellor Nancy Cantor is equally enthusiastic about the Syracuse CoE’s potential. She visited several research laboratories on her first day at SU, and spoke at the center’s 2004 Syracuse Symposium on Environmental and Energy Systems about the importance of dynamic partnerships among universities, corporations, and communities. “Understanding indoor air pollution will give us vital opportunities to improve the environment and human health,” Cantor says. “We expect great things from research at the center.”

Work in Progress

Indoor air pollution involves multiple components, including dust, pollen, and particles found in tobacco smoke; and chemical gases that originate from building and furniture materials, cleaning products, human activity, pets, and plants. At Syracuse and elsewhere, increased research attention and funding are directed toward identifying and measuring indoor air contaminants, a process that includes tracking contaminants from their sources. “What happens when the contaminants from a power plant in another state enter the atmosphere, and that air comes down in an urban environment, moves into a building, and joins with other contaminants in the walls or furnishings, or with contaminants from human activities such as cooking, cleaning, or just walking around on the carpet?” Bogucz asks. “We’d like to understand the various concentrations of contaminants at all the steps along the path, so we can measure and identify them in a person’s immediate breathing zone.”

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Researchers are also interested in whether a particle is organic—for example, bacteria, molds, or harmful biological agents such as anthrax—and in the particle’s size, as measured in microns. “Larger particles of 10 microns or more can get trapped in the upper respiratory system and may cause a sore throat or runny nose,” Bogucz says. Very fine particles might get carried into the bloodstream and lungs, leading to more complex health issues, particularly for such vulnerable populations as young children, elderly people, or people with respiratory problems. Researchers are also learning more about the gases present within built environments, especially those identified as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are emitted from carpets, furnishings, paint, and other sources.

The Syracuse CoE oversees research projects in several areas related to improving indoor air quality and understanding its effects on human health and productivity. A project led by Jianshun “Jensen” Zhang, a mechanical and aerospace engineering professor in ECS, evaluated how effective 15 room air cleaners were at removing VOCs—including several identified by the EPA as “hazardous air pollutants”—commonly found in residences, schools, and workplaces. “Air purification is one of the key approaches for improving indoor air quality, together with controlling sources of contaminants and ventilating with clean outside air,” says Zhang, a recognized authority on indoor air quality and VOC emissions from building materials. “However, there is ample room for improvement in existing products to achieve the full potential of air purification techniques.” Study results indicate performance among individual air cleaners varies widely, and no product currently on the market is effective against all of the VOCs possible in indoor air. The project provides the basis for follow-up work with manufacturers to improve the effectiveness of their products, and also lays the groundwork to develop an established test procedure for evaluating effectiveness.

The study was one of the first to be performed in the Building Energy and Environmental Systems (BEES) Laboratory in Link Hall. A key research lab associated with the Syracuse CoE, the EQS STAR Center, and the NYIEQ Center, the BEES lab was established with funds provided by the EPA; the New York State Assembly; the New York State Office of Science, Technology, and Academic Research; Niagara Mohawk—A National Grid Company; and the University. Its state-of-the-art research facilities, with capabilities to do both experimental and computer simulation analyses, are used for a variety of explorations, including studies of indoor pollutant sources, air filtration and purification technologies, and the transport of airborne contaminants from outdoor to indoor environments.

A project led by Cornell University professor Alan Hedge is studying how changes in air quality, temperature, and humidity in offices affect computer workers’ performance. In a study funded by the EPA through a grant secured by Syracuse-area Congressman James T. Walsh, Hedge is collecting data about environmental conditions at individuals’ desks every 15 minutes over a several week period. Meanwhile, a computer software program monitors employee activity through mouse movement and the number of keystrokes made, noting each time the delete or backspace key is hit. Hedge will analyze the data to determine any predictable patterns. “What we anticipate is that there will be an optimal range within which employees are most productive,” he says. The project will also examine whether variations in air pollutants throughout the day affect a worker’s performance. Eventually, Hedge says, the research must show employers why better environmental conditions translate to improved productivity. “That’s the ‘Holy Grail’ question for building owners,” he says. “If they are going to invest $2 million to change their ventilation systems, they need to know what the benefit will be. We’re hoping to tell them exactly how much they’ll gain through improved employee performance.”

A similar productivity study is planned with employees of the Sensis Corporation, a Syracuse company and Syracuse CoE corporate partner that recently moved into a new building. Plans are also under way to build the Total Indoor Environmental Quality Laboratory, which will provide a controlled space for studying productivity and yield more effective measurements than are possible in an actual workplace. “The relationship between air quality and productivity is not yet well-understood in a rigorously scientific way,” Bogucz says. “But there is a widespread belief that superior indoor air quality leads to better performance by a company’s workforce, and to better health. The preliminary results of the Cornell research support this belief.”

A new study led by the NYIEQ Center focuses on the relationship between indoor air quality and health issues, particularly asthma. The Syracuse Healthy Indoor Environment Living Demonstration project brings together partners from SUNY Upstate Medical University, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Cornell University/Cornell Cooperative Extension, and collaborators from community-based and business organizations. Funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the study will evaluate techniques for minimizing the exposure effects of indoor asthma agents in the homes of an underserved urban population in Syracuse. “We are trying to determine what we can put into the homes of 5- to 12-year-old children who have asthma to lessen their asthma,” says Lisa B. Cleckner, an environmental health scientist with the NYIEQ Center. Among the interventions to be evaluated are impermeable covers for mattresses and pillows, portable floor-based air cleaners, window-mounted heat recovery ventilators, and education on cleaning techniques. “We already have a good idea of what the triggers are,” Cleckner says. “The point of this demonstration project is to bring devices to the community that will actually help with the problem.”

“We are setting up the facilities and infrastructure that will catalyze an emerging development and growth area for Central New York and New York State...”

Suresh Santanam,
associate director, Syracuse CoE

A team of faculty members and students from Clarkson University and SU is studying the breathing zone and the “personal cloud”—the envelope of air that surrounds each person. The EPA-funded study, led by Clarkson engineering professor Andrea R. Ferro, is being conducted in SU’s Indoor Flowfield Laboratory, a facility established by the EQS STAR Center. “The personal cloud takes into account that a person is exposed to higher concentrations of pollutants because of being closer to the pollutant sources,” Ferro says. Particles from textile fibers, household cleansers, and building materials move about as a result of human activity. “We think this is really significant because, for example, the household dust a person re-suspends by walking across a room can contain high concentrations of such pollutants as pesticides, PCBs, lead, and a variety of allergens.” One of the study’s goals is to accurately define the content and movement of indoor air so they can be factored into the overall measurement of air quality.

According to EQS STAR Center director H. Ezzat Khalifa, these diverse research projects share the common goal of modifying the environment to protect human health and enhance human performance. That objective is achieved through the collaborative efforts of experts from a range of disciplines, including engineering, physics, environmental economics, public administration, medicine, and organizational psychology. “We hope to leverage the diversity of abilities—in terms of both people and labs—that exists within these research partnerships, and produce something bigger than we can individually,” says Khalifa, an ECS professor. “By working together to increase the research portfolio, opportunities develop for new technologies. These technologies are picked up by companies to make into products and services.”

Stepping into the Future

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Syracuse CoE associate director Suresh Santanam describes the center’s work as a kind of time travel. “It is difficult to explain the depth and complexity of the center’s work,” he says. “Imagine yourself back in the year 1900, trying to envision flying in the space shuttle. At the center, our concept is similar. We are trying to look into the future, and bring some of those potential developments closer to the present.”

Santanam has been part of the nation’s movement to improve indoor air quality from its inception. As a doctoral student in air pollution engineering and environmental health at Harvard during the early ’80s, he worked with renowned environmental expert John Spengler and contributed to the Harvard Six Cities Study, which pioneered the exploration of indoor air quality. His thesis examined the effects of second-hand tobacco smoke on the children of smokers. “This was one of the first studies to indicate that passive, exhaled smoke has a potentially harmful effect,” Santanam says. That knowledge helped provide a foundation for legislation that limits smoking in public places.

He sees the center as a unique leadership model for researching and developing new technologies. “We are maximizing the knowledge capital available to us,” says Santanam, whose responsibilities include overseeing design development for the new Syracuse CoE headquarters (see story, facing page). “We are setting up the facilities and infrastructure that will catalyze an emerging development and growth area for Central New York and New York State. Our goal is to fully understand the concept of human comfort and define it at its fundamental level. As we progress, we will learn how to create indoor environments that allow people to leave their workplaces at the end of the day with a sense of energy, well-being, and enthusiasm.”

Bogucz agrees that this is an exciting time for the Syracuse CoE and the region it serves. “Our investments in new facilities and equipment have begun to yield visible results,” he says. “Our initial research efforts are attracting attention from corporate partners, practitioners, and local, national, and international media. We look forward to soaring to new heights and fulfilling the vision of improving the environment and generating economic vitality for decades to come.”

 

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Building Green

It may be too early to tell if students at the Martin J. Whitman School of Management have more bounce in their step or increased enthusiasm for their studies now that they have moved into the school’s new building (see related story). But all evidence points to the likelihood that the building’s “green” design features will contribute to the health, well-being, and productivity of those who use it. According to S. Richard Fedrizzi G’87, president, CEO, and founding chair of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), research indicates that green buildings—defined as buildings with high-performance, environmentally responsible designs—can have remarkable effects: patients in green hospitals go home two and a half days earlier than average; workers in green factories show higher levels of productivity and lower incidences of injury; and children in green schools achieve test scores about 20 percent higher than the norm. “The green building movement treats people and the environment with extreme dignity, and enhances education, healing, and life,” says Fedrizzi, who spoke on “Building Green: Everyone Profits” last October at the Syracuse Symposium on Environmental and Energy Systems.

The new 160,000-square-foot management building features several green design elements. Energy- and cost-saving devices include a central communicating circulation corridor that allows daylight to reach interior rooms, and a demand-controlled ventilation system with under-floor ventilation in classrooms. Decisions made throughout the design process incorporated the use of energy-efficient measures, low-emitting materials containing no volatile organic compounds, and regional building materials made with recycled content. “SU has been committed to the principles of environmentally responsible building design and construction methodologies for many years,” says Peter Isaac Weingarten ’93 of Fox & Fowle Architects, the New York City-based firm that designed the Whitman School’s new home and was co-founded by Bruce Fowle ’60, a recognized leader in green design. “The new management building continues this trend on several environmental fronts and serves as a true model for the leaders of tomorrow.”

The Syracuse Center of Excellence (CoE) in Environmental and Energy Systems is currently in the planning stages for its new headquarters in downtown Syracuse. Expected to be completed in spring 2007, the facility is intended to be a pioneering high-performance green building that combines new technologies and design techniques to improve indoor environmental quality and energy efficiency. It will also serve as a showcase and a testing ground for new technologies developed by the center’s partners.

The Syracuse CoE will seek certification for the building under the USGBC’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system, a widely recognized and respected designation that signifies adherence to the highest standards of environmental performance. Fedrizzi believes the headquarters has the potential to be “one of the most significant buildings in the world” in terms of modeling the health, productivity, and economic benefits of green design and construction practices. “My excitement is ‘through the roof’ on this project,” he says. “Here is a chance to promote sustainable built environments by example—a building whose own mission is to advance the mission. They are building the building that walks the talk.”

Eric Beattie, the University’s director of design and construction, indicates that the new management building and the Syracuse CoE headquarters are evidence that green design is a priority at SU. In fact, Chancellor Nancy Cantor has appointed a committee to develop an official green design agenda for the University. “We’ve always been a good citizen of the environment, thinking about green approaches whenever possible,” Beattie says. “We’ll continue to do that and look for ways to get better.”

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