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COVID Insights: Aoife Morrin and Home Air Quality in Lockdown

Submitted on Wednesday, 27/01/2021

“Every researcher in the world is looking at COVID and how its impacts their research. We are no different,” says Dr Aoife Morrin of Insight at DCU, who was in the serendipitous position of having multiple air quality sensors already installed in Irish homes before the lockdown started.

“We were already involved in a project to monitor home air quality and to capture data around the emissions created by domestic activities such as cooking and cleaning,” she explains. “Then lockdown happened and everyone was suddenly at home, the weather wasn’t warm and the windows were closed. We started to see unusual activity on our sensors. What the sensors were telling us was that, just by virtue of being home more, we were seeing a decrease in the air quality.”

Aoife and her team consulted with New Wave Sensors, an air quality company, who also had data on particulate matter and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) from their sensors. They saw the same trends in New Wave Sensors’ data as they had seen in their own – a distinct ‘Covid effect’ in the data, beginning on March 12 2020.

“We realised that there is a very important message here – ventilation in homes is really critical,” says Dr Morrin.  “The statistics show us that, outside of lockdown, human beings spend about 90 per cent of our time indoors. We rightly put a lot of research efforts into monitoring outdoor air quality – and of course there is a correlation between outdoor and indoor air quality – however, there are specific activities indoors that also contribute to the quality of the air we breathe, and we need to raise awareness of this and what the potential effects are.

“With Covid, everybody has been cleaning more, cooking more – these are the at-home activities that impact air quality, in terms of emission production. If you think about the cleaning products that we have in our house, such as bleach, we would have to seek approval to use those in a chemistry lab. We would need to demonstrate that we understand the risks involved and the hazards associated with these chemical reagents.

“Meanwhile, we just have them to hand in our houses.

“We need to regard them as hazardous chemicals, to use them with the windows open. We also need some awareness of the impact on mixing different chemical agents in the home and the impact that might have on air quality. There is an onus on us to make people aware of these risks.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying don’t clean or don’t cook, just that, no matter what the season, the house has to be well-ventilated.

“My background is in analytical chemistry. I am always interested in sensor technology for understanding our environment and health. As this sensor technology becomes more pervasive in our surroundings it will serve to increase the resolution of the data. It’s such a wonderful opportunity to be working with all these data scientists at Insigh