HUD grant funds development of indoor allergen detection technology

Posted: January 10, 2021

On average, we spend 90% of our time indoors — potentially more during the COVID-19 pandemic. Chemical contaminants, irritants and allergens in the indoor environment can pose health risks, especially for those who suffer from asthma.


An Ohio State University research team led by Karen Dannemiller, assistant professor of civil, environmental and geodetic engineering, has received a federal grant of nearly $1 million to develop a smartphone-based test for dust to detect allergens that cause asthma symptoms. The grant is part of $9.4 million awarded to 13 universities and public health agencies through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to research housing-related health hazards.

Dannemiller's team will work to combat this problem with BREATHE-Smart, a smartphone-based test of house dust for semiquantitative detection of inhalant allergens that commonly cause asthma symptoms. The researchers will also demonstrate usability of the app for improved real-time hazard assessment in homes of asthmatic children. They will work with their community partner, the Asthma Express program at Nationwide Children’s Hospital Homecare.  

“HUD understands the critical intersection between health and housing. We are deeply committed to protecting the health of families and children in Ohio so they can reach their full potential,” said HUD Midwest Regional Administrator Joseph P. Galvan.

The smartphone technology can distinguish specific allergens and air contaminants quickly and easily. The app will direct users to community health resources and education to help them remediate indoor air quality problems, and, when finalized, will provide nurses an additional tool to help identify exposure and prioritize remediation resources.

When children have repeated patterns of hospitalization or other dramatic onsets of breathing problems, nurses may visit the home to create asthma action plans, discuss medication use and examine the indoor environment. These examinations have significant limitations and mostly rely on visual inspections or asking questions to unearth the root of the problem. For a more technical analysis, the nurses use a machine similar to a vacuum cleaner to acquire samples that are sent to labs. Results can take weeks — precious time that some children can’t afford. The BREATHE-Smart app changes this.

“With our new system, we should be able to go in the home and, in a short period of time, get information on the spot so nurses can help advise these patients,” Dannemiller says.

The nurses receive the data within minutes, allowing them to create targeted interventions tailored to the unique needs of each family. The process remains the same, just facilitated by the new technology to further optimize the use of limited resources.

Dannemiller has done extensive work on indoor microbiomes. She has always been interested in the topic, wanting to know more and how to measure related information.  

“Sometimes students come to me and ask what direction to go in their studies and careers. I tell them to consider what they think about when their mind wanders, like when they brush their teeth in the morning. What bothers them? For me, that has always been indoor environmental exposure,” Dannemiller said.

After coming to Ohio State in January 2016, she researched a variety of topics ranging from the effect of mold on childhood asthma to how the presence of carpet or moisture changes a house’s microbiology and chemistry. Her background involves many academic disciplines, including engineering, environmental public health and microbiology. 

“I like to work at the interface of a lot of different fields and bring the best parts of them together,” Dannemiller explained.  “Especially if it means that we can help kids with asthma.”

BREATHE-Smart itself brings interdisciplinary collaboration to address this important societal challenge. Key Ohio State collaborators include Perena Gouma, professor of materials science and engineering, and Rongjun Qin, assistant professor in civil, environmental and geodetic engineering and computer and electrical engineering. Nick Shapiro, an assistant professor from the Institute for Society and Genetics at University of California Los Angeles, and Matt Perzanowski, associate professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University, also have contributed to the project. In addition, student researchers play a crucial role in advancing the research.

The BREATHE-Smart team plans to eventually launch the product commercially so it can be available for widespread use. The team is already working with an industry partner, Indoor Biotechnologies.

Work on this project has the potential to develop additional research questions.

“A lot of the projects that we’re doing answer one question and create 10 more,” Dannemiller said. “There’s no scarcity of really important and relevant research questions.”

The answers to the questions will provide valuable information to create a safer world for children with asthma.

based on article by Sustainability Institute student writer Aurora Ellis and press release from

Category: Research