Nicholas School researcher receives $3.4 million grant to study indoor air pollutants

<p>The Nicholas School of the Environment's Grainger Hall.</p>

The Nicholas School of the Environment's Grainger Hall.

A researcher in the Nicholas School of the Environment received a $3.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study indoor exposure to air pollutants.

In addition to the grant, Kate Hoffman, assistant research professor in environmental sciences and policy, also received nearly $250,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency. 

While most people are familiar with outdoor air pollution and its consequences for health, there is a lack in public and scientific knowledge of the consequences of exposure to indoor air pollutants, according to Hoffman. She hopes to change that by studying the health impacts of semivolatile organic compounds (SVOC), a type of chemical compound contained within such pollutants, with the grants. 

“I'm interested in exposure that occurs in indoor environments, because we spend 90% of our time inside,” Hoffman said. “We hear a lot about things like air pollution, outdoor exposure, which are really important.”

The indoor pollutants Hoffman studies include household products, plastics, electronics and furniture. 

She added that despite constant contact with these chemicals, relatively little is known about their impacts on human health. Past work studying the compounds has focused on the impact of each individual chemical and has focused on animal subjects, according to Hoffman.

Her work is unique in that it seeks to identify the consequence of the “fingerprint of chemicals” to which humans are exposed on a daily basis. 

Hoffman notes that not every chemical has negative health consequences. Many of them have productive uses, which is why they are applied to products in the first place.

But since some of these chemicals have a bigger impact on health than others, it is important to know which specific exposures are the most harmful in order to develop a targeted approach to reduce exposure, according to Hoffman. She hopes that her research can help people understand the steps they can take to promote their own health and reduce exposure to harmful compounds.

Hoffman’s study makes use of data from Project HOPE 1000, a medical study launched in 2018 which is jointly managed by the Duke Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the Children’s Health and Discovery Initiative. Project HOPE 1000 seeks to better understand the impact of the first 1000 days of life on the health and well-being of babies and mothers, which lends itself to the work Hoffman does. 

Project HOPE 1000 participants also wear a silicone wristband used to measure environmental exposures to the types of chemicals in which Hoffman is interested. Since the program has been running for a couple of years, there is already a pool of data which has served as an efficient study resource for Hoffman.

Hoffman recalled being pregnant and having a greater awareness of the potential risks that even children’s toys posed, which deepened her interest in understanding the impact of early-life exposures to SVOCs on immune function. 

“When I was pregnant with my own kids, I was working on a project looking at infants’ exposure to flame retardant chemicals. And you start thinking about that a little differently when you're thinking about, ‘Well, I'm pregnant, what am I being exposed to?’” Hoffman said.

Though one of the long-term goals of her research is to inform policies on which chemicals are used, she also underscores an immediate importance to the people involved in the study. 

“For them, I think there's sort of a different question, which is, ‘What can I do now to promote my own health?’” she said. “And so I hope by understanding important pathways of exposure to different chemicals, we can kind of think about how you might be able to reduce your exposure.”


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