People generate their own oxidation field and change the indoor air chemistry around them

People typically spend 90 percent of their lives inside, at home, at work, or in transport. Within these enclosed spaces, occupants are exposed to a multitude of chemicals from various sources, including outdoor pollutants penetrating indoors, gaseous emissions from building materials and furnishings, and products of our own activities such as cooking and cleaning. In addition, we are ourselves potent mobile emission sources of chemicals that enter the indoor air from our breath and skin.

But how do the chemicals disappear again? In the atmosphere outdoors, this happens to a certain extent naturally by itself, when it rains and through chemical oxidation. Hydroxyl (OH) radicals are largely responsible for this chemical cleaning. These very reactive molecules are also called the detergents of the atmosphere and they are primarily formed when UV light from the sun interacts with ozone and water vapor.

Indoors, on the other hand, the air is of course far less affected by direct sunlight and rain. Since UV rays are largely filtered out by glass windows it has been generally assumed that the concentration of OH radicals is substantially lower indoors than outdoors and that ozone, leaking in from outdoors, is the major oxidant of indoor airborne chemical pollutants.

OH radicals are formed from ozone and skin oils

However, now it has been discovered that high levels of OH radicals can be generated indoors, simply due to the presence of people and ozone. This has been shown by a team led by the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in cooperation with researchers from the USA and Denmark.

“The discovery that we humans are not only a source of reactive chemicals, but we are also able to transform these chemicals ourselves was very surprising to us,” says Nora Zannoni, first author of the study published in the research magazine Science, and now at the Institute of Atmospheric Sciences and Climate in Bologna, Italy. “The strength and shape of the oxidation field are determined by how much ozone is present, where it infiltrates, and how the ventilation of the indoor space is configured,” adds the scientist from Jonathan Williams’ team. The levels the scientists found were even comparable to outside daytime OH concentrations levels.

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