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Clearing the Air: TxAIRE Institute Searches for Health Solutions

baby sleeping
Could the air you breathe in your own home make you sick? Could it cause allergies and even asthma in your children? Dr. Jan Sundell has made it his life’s work to find out.

And with the launch of UT Tyler’s new Texas Allergy, Indoor Environment and Energy Institute, he is continuing his research on the quality and impact of indoor air right here in Texas.

The Texas Emerging Technology Fund awarded UT Tyler with a $3.75 million grant to establish TxAIRE, the first collaborative research institute of its kind in the entire United States. Dr. Sundell, a research professor of engineering and a leading international researcher on indoor air, is executive director of TxAIRE.

“Today, almost half of our children have or have had some type of allergy,” Dr. Sundell said. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, asthma cases in the U.S. have doubled in the previous two decades. About 5 percent of the U.S. population has asthma, with the highest proportion among children ages 5 to 14.

“Asthma and allergy cases are increasing,” Dr. Sundell said. “Why? Is it because of the air we breathe in buildings? I’ve been studying this in Sweden, Bulgaria, Taiwan, Singapore, Denmark and now Texas.”

Not only will research findings benefit the health of children and families, it will also provide a boost for local and regional industry. TxAIRE research could lead to improvements in filtration devices and sensors used in the operation of residential heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems.

State Sen. Kevin Eltife said, “The TxAIRE institute is a great project for UT Tyler and all of East Texas. Their innovative research on air quality will hopefully improve our homes and bring in renowned specialists from all over the country. And with UT Tyler as the leading institution in this project, it is especially meaningful for them. I am proud of their efforts.”

Dr. James Nelson, UT Tyler College of Engineering and Computer Science dean, said the institute will offer partnership opportunities between UT Tyler and local industry to implement research findings.

UT Tyler’s academic partners in TxAIRE are The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler, The University of Texas at Dallas and The International Center for Indoor Environment and Energy at theTechnical University of Denmark.

“We think the TxAIRE project will put Tyler on the map nationally and internationally as the center for indoor air quality research and product development,” said Tom Mullins, president of the Tyler Economic Development Council. “We expect it to have a positive long term impact on the local and regional economy.” While the institute offers fresh and exciting opportunities for UT Tyler and the region, the study of indoor air quality is nothing new to Dr. Sundell.

Quest for Answers
Dr. Sundell began asking questions about the quality of indoor air more than 20 years ago in Sweden, where he was responsible for creating and enforcing building codes. “I’m an engineer to begin with,” Dr. Sundell said. “But I couldn’t get any answers from science (about what those codes should be) …”

He wanted answers to questions like how much ventilation is needed in a bedroom. Are people getting sick because of the air in buildings? What is the impact of chemicals from new structures?

Dr. Jan Sundell at computer
World-renowned researcher Dr. Jan Sundell is leading the effort to study indoor air quality as executive director of TxAIRE.

“There is much more research about outdoor air, but little about indoor air,” Dr. Sundell said. “So I started doing science myself.” Dr. Sundell earned a doctorate degree in medicine and began searching for the correlation between health and buildings.

In his research, Dr. Sundell has found some answers. “In looking at what people are exposed to in the home, especially in the bedroom, we have found in Sweden and Bulgaria a strong association to plastic, PBC flooring. It’s just one of many other factors. New chemicals in the environment may be one of the causes. These are all manmade products … and the children are getting sick.”

There are no studies in the U.S. of this kind -- not for getting a deeper understanding of the home environment. Dr. Sundell said when the research yields more information about housing, they can offer recommendations for better air quality.

How it Works
Researchers start with a questionnaire. “We’ll send out a questionnaire to parents in Tyler, asking about housing, health of children and family, ”Dr. Sundell said. “In Sweden, we had an 80 percent response. In Bulgaria, it was tough to get even 35 percent. Will parents respond to the questionnaire and will they let us into their homes to make an investigation? We’ll see.”

Dr. Sundell said the next level of research is based on the received responses. “We make a case for a control study. We study the homes of sick children and healthy children and look for differences.

“Eventually, we will actually build homes close to campus to try out our ideas about healthy housing ... a laboratory test. For instance, we’ll see if filters are any good. Today, there is a huge market for filters in the U.S.,” he said.

The institute will eventually have a living laboratory, Dr. Nelson said. “We will build a typical single family residence and have a family live there for an extended period of time to really look at the health benefits of ideas. We will be able to change out components of the house to see the impact of various aspects.”

Problems Unique to Texas, U.S.?
It is important to get the picture of how people live for the health of children, Dr. Sundell said. “If we look at homes in Sweden and Texas, they are very different, of course, with climate differences.”

Another difference between Sweden and the U.S. is flooring. “Carpets are unknown in Sweden,” Dr. Sundell said. “They had carpet 30 years ago, but not now. We don’t know if carpets are a problem or not.”

Dampness and mold are worldwide problems. In Bulgaria, 35 percent of children have visible mold in their rooms. In Sweden, there is almost no visible mold. Mold is more in the construction. “But we do not yet know what the mold situation is in Texas,” said Dr. Sundell.

Once the system is in place, the institute will continue focusing on additional studies. “For example, we will follow women who are pregnant from about week eight to 10 in order to map the progress of pregnancy … an important time for the baby (in relation to indoor air quality),’’ he said.

“For human beings, the most important time is pregnancy and the first year of life … it is when we are developing as a human life. Most of that time is spent indoors and in the bedroom. In other countries, the mother is out walking the baby. But in the U.S., babies stay indoors or in the car.”

The research of TxAIRE will be both medical and technical — a close collaboration between engineering and medicine.

“We will collaborate with industry through quite a few companies that we hope will get involved,” Dr. Sundell said. “There may be a need for new products and innovation, but you first have to know the problems.”

Dr. Nelson said the institute will begin with the questionnaires this spring and will involve students in every aspect of the research. One or two of the “family test homes” will be constructed by the end of the year, with three total structures planned.

“This will be a fully sustainable center,” Dr. Nelson said. “We are trying to build it into a broad, internationally collaborative institute.”

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