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Interviewee: Charlene Bayer
From a slight throat tickle to a frightening battle against your own body for air, asthma attacks, especially in children, are frightening events that can have life-or-death consequences. And for doctors, finding what triggered the attack is a frustrating guessing-game. But a well-padded vest with air monitoring equipment developed by engineers at the Georgia Tech Research Institute could change all that.
The project was led by principal research scientist Charlene Bayer and Research Scientist Robert Hendry. They wanted to help put an end to a doctor’s guessing game by recording someone’s exposure to things in the air that might trigger an asthma attack. Bayer says, “What we wanted to do is develop a personal exposure monitor that … primarily children could wear 24 hours a day or have near them 24 hours a day so that we could measure their exposure.”
The vest has, according to Bayer, “a sensor box that has multiple sensors in it to measure different organic compounds and materials that are in the air.” Those include total volatile organic compounds, formaldehyde, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, temperature, relative humidity, carbon dioxide and particles. She adds that the portability of the equipment in a vest allows them “to data log and to track what’s going on with the different chemicals over time.”
From cat dander to man-made toxins, our air is filled with minute particles and gasses that, when breathed in, can have a significant impact on our health. The trouble is, people have no way of noticing small amounts of these problem-causers. Additionally, people respond differently to different substances and often there is a lag-time between when someone breathes in an asthma trigger and the asthma attack.
Bayer notes that prior to this device, backpacks were used, “with more standard monitoring equipment.” Additionally, room monitors have been used in bedrooms to monitor triggers for nighttime asthma attacks.
This vest, however, is far less intrusive. But it took some serious work to make it happen. Bayer says, “The real engineering feat, I think, is getting all of those sensors to actually work together in a single box, because they weren’t designed to function together.”
The vest was subject to three levels of testing to make sure that the sensors were accurately reporting what was in the air. One of the laboratory tests took advantage of Georgia Tech’s environmental chamber. Bayer explains that they put a mannequin in the chamber “that we put the vest on and then we’re able to put in known amounts of the gasses we expect to be detecting, and measure it in a simulated real-world situation”
They also had six adult volunteers wear the vest continually for three days, except for at night when they put the vest next to their bed. Bayer notes that the test brought some real-world results for one volunteer who learned that compounds from his car’s exhaust were finding their way into his house.
Since the monitoring equipment is designed primarily for children, Bayer had to work to make the device both safe for children and safe from children who might regard the sensitive electronics as a toy. The vest is well padded to guard against injuries from falls and special attention was taken to make sure the equipment didn’t get too hot. Additionally, Bayer notes, “From the desktop unit we learned how crafty children can be with instrumentation.” She noted how one unit became a game for a child hosting a group sleepover.
Bayer says the system is ready to use, but that improvements are possible. She says, “Sensor technology is changing very quickly and so there’s more advanced sensors, smaller sensors that can allow us to move on (to more advanced equipment).”
This research was funded by the United States’ Department of Housing and Urban Development with initial funding from the Georgia Tech Research Institute Independent Research and Development program. It was published in the Proceedings of Indoor Air 2002 and International Academy of Indoor Air Sciences, among other places.
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