Identifying Exposure Risks from Common Household Chemicals in Durham Homes

November 17, 2021 | By Ken Kingery

$1 million Durham study to examine exposure from chemicals in building materials and consumer products and evaluate mitigation strategies to reduce exposures during pregnancy

A blond boy in a yellow t-shirt sneezing in a cloud of dust

Researchers from Duke University are partnering with community organizations in Durham to find ways of measuring chemical exposures from everyday household materials such as flooring, furniture and paint.

Through a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the project aims to develop methods for accurately measuring such exposures, determining the types of building materials and household products associated with these exposures, and mitigating their potential hazards through daily robotic vacuuming.

“The novel aspect of this project is the goal of tracking and sampling a wide range of contaminants in the home,” said Heileen Hsu-Kim, professor of civil and environmental engineering and environmental sciences and policy at Duke. “While previous studies might have focused solely on lead or organic chemicals, we’re taking aim at many hazardous metals and chemicals all at once.”

Leading the project along with Hsu-Kim are Duke faculty members Heather Stapleton, the Ronie-Richele Garcia-Johnson Distinguished Professor of Environmental Health, and Kate Hoffman, assistant research professor of environmental science and policy.

It’s no secret that household building materials can contain harmful contaminants. Lead paint was once commonly used in homes, but was discontinued in the 1970s after it was linked to children’s exposure and neurotoxic effects. More recently, commonly used fire retardants applied to furniture, insulation and electronics have been shown to pose potential health risks, particularly for children who have higher levels of exposure because they spend more time on the floor in contact with dust and put their hands in their mouths more frequently than adults.

Pinpointing which specific chemicals at what specific levels are cause for alarm is difficult due to the complex mixtures that result from a wide variety of sources. Measuring exposures to even a single environmental chemical can be tricky, let alone a potpourri unique to each household.

“There are some environmental contaminants found in homes that we already know are bad for children's health, like lead,” Hoffman said. “In this project, we are using different tools to identify mothers with higher levels of exposure, which provides an opportunity to intervene early.”

To address this challenge, the researchers are using a modified silicone wristband. Silicone is often used to absorb and detect many organic compounds that can be harmful to human health. The modifications will allow the wristbands to also detect airborne dust particles that contain metals and other chemicals.

During the study, participants will wear these wristbands for about a week while experts conduct a survey of their homes to identify potential sources of chemical exposure. By comparing the chemical levels on wristbands to the home survey, the researchers hope to uncover new insights into which everyday household items and materials should be more heavily scrutinized. Afterward, some households will receive regular automated cleanings from a robotic vacuum cleaner to investigate how this simple intervention can help reduce exposures.

“Vacuuming regularly seems like such an obvious way to reduce these types of exposures, but it’s very difficult to prove in practice,” Hsu-Kim said. “The challenge is with knowing for sure just how often and thoroughly people are vacuuming. But with today’s autonomous robotic vacuums, it’s much easier to know for sure exactly when and where the vacuuming has been done.”

The team is partnering with Duke’s Children’s Health Discovery Initiative (CHDI) and Durham’s Partnership Effort for the Advancement of Children’s Health (PEACH) program to recruit 100 local households for the study. Participants will be drawn from Project HOPE 1000, a program supported by CHDI that follows children from pregnancy through their first 1,000 days of life to identify factors that contribute to poor birth outcomes.  

The project is being funded through the HUD’s Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes (OLHCHH), which recently awarded $15.7 million in grants aimed at identifying and improving methods for detecting and controlling lead and other housing-related health and safety hazards. Providing funds for these studies and demonstrations is extremely important for developing knowledge that helps to create and sustain new and existing housing that supports the health of residents, especially populations at higher risk of being affected by home health hazards, such as young children and seniors.

“We’re hoping to understand how chemical treatments in building materials and chemical emissions from products in our home contribute to human exposure and health risks,” said Stapleton, who has been involved in Project HOPE 1000 with Hoffman for several years. “This may help us identify products and materials that are primary sources of human exposure and inform strategies for mitigation, like replacing products or encouraging industry to use different chemicals in their design.”