Centre for Environmental Health and Sustainability


Indoor air and health

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are ubiquitous pollutants in both indoor and outdoor air, but information on exposure to these compounds in homes and workplaces is currently limited. Sources of VOCs in the indoor environment are varied and include furnishings, cooking, heating, moulds, and cleaning/personal care products. Diffusion of VOCs from the outdoor environment also occurs. Additional contributors in workplaces and educational settings include printers and photocopiers. Carbon monoxide (CO) is another common pollutant present in indoor air, sources include formation from processes such as cooking and heating, and diffusion from outdoors from traffic emissions. There is evidence that exposure to CO at the levels experience in the indoor environment can cause adverse health effects, although research in the area is also currently lacking.  

Within this project advanced analytical techniques are used to characterise and quantify VOCs and CO concentrations within the indoor environment. This allows sources that contribute to poor air quality to be identified and the exposure potentials of individuals within the environment to be calculated. 

Two studentships are working within this project: one focussed on measuring air quality within the home and its effect on respiratory disease symptoms, and the other measuring emissions from desktop liquid resin bed 3D printers their potential impact on health. Both projects will consider mitigation procedures to reduce personal exposure and how indoor air quality can be improved in both residential and public indoor spaces.  

A two-dimensional gas chromatographic separation of VOCs from a sample of indoor air

Indoor air is a complex mixture of chemicals - two-dimensional gas chromatographic separation of VOCs from a sample of indoor air, where each peak represents a unique VOC detected. 

Bioaerosols and health 

This project aims to better characterise bioaerosol exposures in the built environment and investigate associations with health outcomes (working with project 1). Bioaerosols are viable and non-viable airborne biological particles, such as fungal spores, bacteria, pollen, viruses and their fragments and by-products. They are ubiquitous and common in both indoor and outdoor built environments. However, information on the composition of bioaerosols within different built environments, and their impact on public health, remains limited. Traditional and modern approaches will be used to determine the types of microbes people are exposed to in different indoor (railway stations and homes) and outdoor (urban) built environments, and determine if these differ from rural environments. Bioaerosol exposure data along with other common pollutant data will then be linked with real-time syndromic health surveillance data to identify any associations between specific bioaerosols and health outcomes. The initial focus will be on fungi, which are associated with the development/exacerbation of asthma and allergy. Project 2 will also link with the indoor air PhD in Project 1, measuring indoor air contaminants including moulds in homes and relating these to respiratory symptoms.

Metals in dusts and soils, and health 

The aim of this project is to investigate exposures to metals from soils and dust and assess potential health risks. 

Metals in household dust arise from contaminated soils and we have previously found correlations between local soil contaminants, indoor dust and biomonitoring samples. Environmental public health surveillance in England has found high exposures to heavy metals, such as arsenic (As), lead (Pb) and cadmium (Cd) through soil and dust. Development of fine resolution soil metal maps can highlight areas for investigation. A new HPRU PhD studentship will characterise soil and indoor dust metal contaminants in England at fine resolution to allow epidemiological risk assessments. 

Higher exposures to metals such as As, Pb and Cd are associated with various health outcomes. However, other potential health risks may arise from the impact of metals on bacteria and viruses. Previous work at UoL has shown that copper increases antimicrobial resistance (AMR) acquisition in methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. In order to better characterise health risks from metal pollution, the effect of metals on host-pathogen interactions, including bacterial interactions, AMR properties, host immune response and epithelial integrity will be studied in laboratory settings. 

Environmental noise and health 

There is growing awareness that noise is an important public health issue. While impacts on quality of life and sleep are well-recognised, a growing evidence base suggests that transport noise can adversely impact cardiovascular and metabolic health.

The aim of this project is to improve population noise exposure assessment, strengthen the evidence base for health effects from noise and to better understand inequalities in exposure and effects on health. The objectives are to: 

  1. improve the evidence base on noise and health by new/updated meta-analyses e.g. for ischaemic heart disease and for dementia. 
  2. conduct epidemiological analyses of transport noise and health outcomes to strengthen the evidence base, including assessment of different and newer noise exposure metrics. 
  3. establish a methodology for the noise characterisation of urban green and open space, suitable for use in epidemiological studies. 

Drinking water quality and health 

We come to expect clean and healthy drinking water, but it is not pure as there are natural minerals in water depending on the source, and trace amounts of contaminants. There are also additives present which improve our drinking water. The natural mineral fluoride is present in many water supplies but is also added in some areas as it significantly reduces the risks of dental caries (decay) which require fillings and, potentially, causes tooth loss. There have also been concerns expressed about possible risks from fluoride and there is a duty under the Water Industry Act 1991 to conduct monitoring of health in fluoridated areas. This monitoring is undertaken by UK Health Security Agency on behalf of the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. Within the framework of this monitoring UKHSA is, with the help of University of Leicester in the HPRU, contributing one specific project related to fluoride in water and child mental development. 

This project was prompted by some studies in other countries which have reported an association between exposure to high levels of fluoride during pregnancy and infancy, and reduced IQ measured in young children. Across England there is variation in water fluoride concentration, due to both natural variation and supplementary fluoride added to some supplies with very low natural fluoride, to bring it up to the target concentrations for dental protection. This study will assess whether or not there is any evidence in this population of an association between these varying fluoride levels in drinking water at the time of pregnancy of children in a national birth cohort, and IQ measured in these children.    

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