Engineering Professor Karen Dannemiller isn’t fond of the idiom “out of sight, out of mind.” In fact, much of her research is focused on things our noses breathe in, but our eyes can’t see, like formaldehyde.
Dannemiller began studying formaldehyde’s presence in the indoor environment while pursuing her first engineering degree at Brown University. Her interest and innovation in the topic continues today as she leads Ohio State’s Indoor Environmental Quality Laboratory.
“In our lab, we’re really interested in helping people reduce their exposures to harmful chemicals,” Dannemiller said. “And we’re particularly passionate about helping asthmatic children.”
Formaldehyde is a colorless, strong-smelling gas used in making building materials, furniture and many household products. At room temperature, formaldehyde can vaporize—or off-gas—out of these products into the air. It irritates the nose, eyes and throat, and for some, exposure may cause wheezing, asthma attacks and other respiratory symptoms. According to the American Cancer Society, formaldehyde exposure also has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory test animals.
Utilizing a National Science Foundation grant, Dannemiller’s team developed an inexpensive way to detect indoor formaldehyde levels easily and quickly using a smartphone app and color-changing badges placed in the home. The team includes Assistant Professor Rongjun Qin, who serendipitously introduced himself to Dannemiller on the very day she was wondering how to convert a smartphone photo into a usable measurement. With a joint appointment in Civil, Environmental and Geodetic Engineering and Computer and Electrical Engineering, Qin is an expert in digital image processing. Other partners include the citizen science group Public Lab and collaborators at UCLA, SUNY Buffalo, and Castner, Inc.