Measuring indoor air quality in day care centers and preschools is both difficult and expensive. Now, thanks to research from the University of Missouri, measuring the volatile organic compounds in such spaces — as released by cleaning products, air fresheners, toys and school supplies — is expected to be cheaper and easier with a new low-cost measurement tool.

“The volatile organic compounds found in the air come from common school supplies, cleaning products, paints, solvents and refrigerants,” said Chung Ho Lin, research associate professor at UM Center for Agroforestry and School of Natural Resources. “Past research has indicated that these compounds might have adverse effects for children, such as triggering asthma.”

Researchers collected 74 liters of air from small air pumps connected to adjustable towers throughout one such center. Because the towers were adjustable, researchers were able to take air quality measurements from several different heights. Back at the lab, the research team used their device — called the electronic nose— to “sniff” out 47 of 73 volatile organic compounds that have been linked to health issues.

“Children are particularly susceptible to chemical exposure from volatile organic compounds as their heart and respiration rates are faster than adults, meaning they take in more air,” said Gustavo Carlo, professor of human development and family science and co-director of the Center for Children and Families Across Cultures in the college of human environmental sciences. “Moreover, they can be exposed longer and their immune systems are still developing.”

However, despite the findings, researchers are calling the measurement of volatile organic compounds a critical first step in improving air quality. As such, there are a number of measures that can be taken to improve air quality if caregivers are concerned, including opening windows, installing air filters and avoiding air fresheners and other fragrances with a chemical base, to name just a few.

“While people might think that measuring air quality is simple, it can be quite challenging given that many things — room size, air flow and proximity to doors or windows — can impact the measurement,” Lin said.

“We also need to accommodate for children being near the tool and find a way to measure air quality that isn’t distracting to their learning environment,” added Danh Vu, a graduate student in the school of natural resources.

To contact the author of this article, email