Asthma Study Finds High Concentrations of Chemicals in Louisville Homes

A University of Louisville study on asthma in older adults has found high levels of potentially dangerous chemicals inside the homes of participants in the city and Southern Indiana.

Chemicals like chloroform, benzene, xylene, toluene, chloromethane, and Freon 22, 11 and 12 were found in almost all of the homes analyzed. Many were in concentrations above safety thresholds.

Researchers are looking to find what triggers asthma in Louisville residents who are 60 years and older, have asthma and are non-smokers. Lead researcher and U of L nursing professor Barbara Polivka told a Metro Council committee on Wednesday that the study includes both clinical assessments and air quality monitoring.

“We’re very much focused on volatile organic compounds because they’re a trigger to asthma, but we don’t know much about them, and they are ubiquitous in our environment,” she said. “They’re everywhere.”

Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are toxic chemicals that quickly vaporize. In Louisville, they’re commonly associated with air quality in Rubbertown. It was high levels of VOC emissions there that led the city to start the Strategic Toxic Air Reduction (STAR) program, which regulates emissions from the neighborhood’s industries.

But the U of L study has also found high levels of these chemicals inside peoples’ houses.

Russ Barnett of U of L’s Kentucky Institute for the Environment and Sustainable Development is also part of the study team. He told the council committee that he commonly detects 13 different VOCs in the outdoor air. But among the 35 homes he’s tested for the asthma study, there were an average of 30 VOCs in each houses’ indoor air.

mapUniversity of Louisville

Barnett said in some cases, the chemicals inside the houses are coming from the outside, but they’re found at higher concentrations.

“And the reason for that is, that anything that’s released in the home is within a confined space; it doesn’t have any room to dilute, so you’ll get a heavier concentration, he said.

Inside, the chemicals also aren’t exposed to the sun, so they take longer to break down. But other chemicals are likely originating in the home from sources like heating units, cooking oil or cleaning products.

“A lot of times we think of air quality problems as being limited to West Louisville and coming from one collection of sources in Rubbertown,” Barnett said. “But you can see here that in some cases, we’re seeing levels metro-wide that are of equal size or even larger than they are in Rubbertown.”

Those include chemicals like acrylonitrile and acrolein.

The study is just beginning. Researchers would like to ultimately enroll 200 people. Study participants receive $200 in gift cards. For more information, call 502-852-2273 or click here.

Erica Peterson

Erica Peterson reports on energy and the environment for WFPL.