Particle Man

Prof. Jeff Siegel studies particle pollution in landmark indoor air quality study

Prof. Jeffrey Siegel likens engineers to “people who practice medicine without licenses,” and his research on particle pollution highlights the intersection between civil engineering and health. Prof. Siegel, a cross-appointed faculty member at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, has been studying particle pollution since the late 1990s. He is currently part of a research study by the University of Toronto, the Toronto Atmospheric Fund and Health Canada examining indoor air quality and energy use in seven Toronto Community Housing (TCH) buildings, which will undergo retrofitting by 2018.

“Indoor air quality is remarkably understudied,” said Siegel. “Particle pollution is our biggest environmental hazard. We know categorically that when particles in the air increase, people get sick and die. There is no safe threshold.”

Particle pollution, or particulate matter, is an airborne mixture of miniscule solid particles and liquid droplets that are less than 10 micrometers in diameter. It is composed of various materials, including organic chemicals, acids, and metals created by different mechanical and chemical processes. Particle pollution causes a host of health effects, such as cardiovascular and respiratory problems, cancer and even genetic defects in unborn children.

The study looks at indoor air quality and energy use together with the aim of optimizing both. Prof. Siegel’s group monitors the air quality in the TCH buildings pre- and post-retrofits, which are slated for completion in 2018. The team focuses on filter forensics. They have installed air filters in a selection of apartments and willcomplete dust analyses of the filters for size distribution of the particles and their chemical constituents.

“We are looking at the filters in a qualitatively formalized way,” said Siegel. “They’ll tell a story that can lead to greater public knowledge about the localized effects of particle pollution and how retrofits can mitigate these effects.”