ROCIS News & Events
July 2020
Clearing The Air in Mon Valley Homes
Have you heard about the Clairton Air Filter Project?

Portable air cleaners may offer some protection against the harmful effects of air pollution. A coalition of organizations have established a free program to provide portable air cleaners for 40 homes in Clairton homes to reduce exposure of outdoor and indoor air pollution.  

The ROCIS team is providing portable air cleaners in July of 2020 and providing support to increase their effective use. Priority households for this project are those with preexisting health conditions, especially respiratory and cardiovascular, in addition to households with pregnant women, children, and elderly. Additional funding is being pursued. Over 289 applications were received; there is clearly great need and interest!

The Clairton Home Air Filter Distribution Program is a collaborative effort by the Clean Air Council , Clean Water Action , Clean Water Fund , Community Partners in Asthma Care, Cornerstone Care Inc. , One PA, ROCIS, Valley Clean Air Now (VCAN) & Women for a Healthy Environment , funded by The Heinz Endowment s.

Read more about the program HERE and HERE .

Donate to the program HERE .
Join a ROCIS Low Cost Monitoring Project Virtual Cohort!

Kits will be delivered to participants via a no contact exchange - either door to door or via mail. The kit includes monitors for particles, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and radon. During the one-month-long cohort, participants monitor their indoor and outdoor air, and receive weekly feedback on their results. During the monitoring period, ROCIS participants can test the effectiveness of ROCIS-loaned equipment, including portable air cleaners and DIY filter fans. The virtual format has increased the convenience of participating through:

  • No travel requirements (All meetings are online!)
  • Flexible meeting times (There are two weekly online ROCIS meetings, each with the option of attending in the morning or evening.)
  • Shorter meetings (Each meeting is ~1 hour)
  • More frequent meetings (There are 10 meetings!)
  • Opportunity for more household members to participate (Kids are welcome!)

Another bonus for participants: virtual cohort meetings allow remote ROCIS experts Don Fugler and Rob Busher to participate in meetings. “What I found really useful in the virtual cohort was that people interacted more with us all.”, Don noted. He typically communicates with cohort participants via email, but in the virtual format he is available twice per week to talk with participants about their home characteristics and activities that may be influencing monitoring results.  

Over the course of the virtual cohort, the ROCIS team covers a wide range of topics including:
  • Air quality in Pittsburgh
  • Accessing and interpreting air quality monitoring results
  • Technical interventions to improve indoor air quality
  • Behavioral interventions to improve indoor air quality
  • Resources to learn about local outdoor air quality
  • Health impacts of air quality

Interested in participating in a ROCIS virtual cohort?

Contact Emily Dale at
Airborne transmission has been identified as a dominant route for the spread of COVID-19. Implications for occupants & HVAC system operation?
According to experts, HVAC systems do not appear to transmit COVID-19, but they can make it easier for the airborne virus to build up inside a room.
Two recent interviews addressed the relationship between COVID-19 and air conditioning. An episode of Indoor Air Quality Radio featured Bill Bahnfleth, Chairman of the Epidemic Task Force of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). The radio program Here and Now interviewed Shelly Miller, professor of environmental engineering and expert in indoor air quality at the university of Colorado at Boulder.

Both experts emphasized that indoor environments pose a greater risk of infection than outdoor environments. “There’s good reason to believe that most people are infected in indoor environments, whether they’re building or mobile environments.”, Bahnfleth said. Miller pointed out, “When we’re indoors a lot, with poor ventilation inside and crowding, and no masks, then it’s a perfect recipe for transmission.” Both also said there are no findings to indicate that that the virus can be transmitted through central air conditioning. According to Bahnfleth, “No one that I’ve talked with who’s been following this has seen any evidence that even if the virus gets through an air conditioning system, that there’s been space to space transmission.”

However, the relationship between HVAC systems and COVID-19 is a complicated issue that appears to require considering pros and cons.

For instance, Miller highlighted the ability of air conditioning to limit outdoor air from mixing indoors. With respect to central air conditioning she said, “You very rarely bring in much more than 20% or less outside air because it’s hot and it takes a lot of building energy to cool that air. And so my concern is that in air conditioned buildings you do not have enough outside air and don’t have enough adequate filtration in your re-circulation system to suppress and decrease concentrations of airborne virus that may be circulating in your environment…The transmission is happening locally inside the space where you are with lots of other people and there’s not enough outside air because you’re trying to keep the air cool.”

On the other hand, Bahnfleth pointed out there can be protective effects of central air conditioning. “Turning off your air conditioning system is not necessarily a good idea…the thing that has to be remembered is that AC systems do a lot of different things. They not only circulate air in a space, which is necessary to control temperature and humidity and contaminants, they also provide ventilation. They should provide ventilation and they filter they air. They do things that are highly protective like dilute contaminants and remove them from the air. So in general it’s a good thing to have the system running.” ASHRAE has developed recommendations for optimizing HVAC systems as a tool to fight the transmission of COVID-19. These include increasing ventilation, reducing re-circulation, improving filtration, adding air cleaning technologies, and opening windows.

Read more about ASHRAE recommendations for HVAC systems and access additional COVID-19 resources from ASHRAE HERE.

Listen to the full interview with Dr. Miller on Here and Now, which includes her insights on considerations for opening schools HERE.

Listen to the full conversation with Dr. Bahnfleth on IAQ Radio HERE.
On July 21, from 11:00 to 12:00 PM EDT, ASHRAE will be offering a free online course, Analysis of Airflow Patterns and Flow Path of Airborne Contaminants. The course is designed to provide valuable insights to HVAC design engineers, facility managers, infection prevention personnel, and building owners regarding the role of airflow patterns and resulting flow path of airborne contaminants. Read more and register HERE.

ROCIS insights on high MERV filtration

What did we find as we have explored the feasibility to modify existing residential HVAC systems to provide effective particle filtration? The graph below summarizes the problems/barriers identified. NOTE: Most of these HVAC systems were located in a basement.
Learn more about the ROCIS Air Handler Inquiry and the checklist we developed when evaluating the ability of home's HVAC system for better filtration.  
Myth busting: CO 2 and masks
Participants in ROCIS cohorts monitor carbon dioxide ( CO 2) levels in their homes, and ROCIS provides interpretation and feedback regarding potential solutions for high indoor CO 2. Concerns about a CO 2 levels of a different kind recently gained attention on social media . The claim states that a severe health problem called hypercapnia - too much CO 2 in the blood - can occur due to rebreathing your own exhaled CO 2 by wearing a mask continually.  This claim has been repeatedly debunked by medical professionals and news organizations, including via the Cleveland Clinic, the Associated Press, and the BBC.

"This simply won't happen unless there is an air-tight fit and you rebreathe your air," Prof Keith Neal, an infectious disease expert, told the BBC. Sarah Stanley, associate professor of infectious diseases and vaccinology, told the Associated Press, “Keep in mind that many people —for example surgeons or certain kinds of scientists—have routinely worn masks for long periods of time without clear adverse effects. With how common mask wearing has always been, even before COVID-19, we would know if hypercapnia was a problem with wearing masks.”

Carbon dioxide molecules are much smaller than the droplets containing coronavirus which the masks are designed to stop. Breathable material cannot trap CO 2 at dangerous levels, especially during relatively short periods like a trip to the grocery store.

However, it is possible for masks to pose a risk to some vulnerable populations. According to the Cleveland Clinic, people who should not wear cloth masks include kids under age two, anyone who ordinarily has trouble breathing, or anyone who can’t take the mask off without assistance. N95 respirators are far more restrictive than the surgical masks and cloth masks being worn in response to COVID. People with chronic respiratory, cardiac, or other medical conditions that make breathing difficult should check with their health care provider before using an N95 respirator.
New ROCIS Team Members
Emily Dale
ROCIS Low Cost Monitoring Program Coordinator
Emily is excited to join the ROCIS team. She is a southwestern PA native who studied at La Trobe University in Bundoora, Australia, earning a Bachelor of Nursing. She is fascinated by public health and excited about the primary prevention possibilities ROCIS affords. After returning to PA with her growing family, she has been part of various community groups – including president of the local MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) chapter and a board member for Cornerstone Care, a community FQHC (Federally Qualified Health Center) serving Fayette, Greene, and Washington Counties in southwestern PA. Emily worked for Teen Outreach doing childbirth and parenting education with teen parents from 2017-2019. Emily is now an ICEA certified childbirth educator and teaches community education at a suburban Pittsburgh hospital.
Jessica Kester
ROCIS Air Quality Education Coordinator
Jessica joins ROCIS with 20 years of educational experience. She began her career as a field instructor in coastal marine sciences at the Chincoteague Bay Field Station in Wallops Island, VA. She moved westward to teach students from urban / suburban Chicago at the Lorado-Taft Field Campus of Northern Illinois University. She ran The Outdoor Classroom in Pittsburgh’s South Hills for 10 year. In 2016, Jessica started the new outdoor and environmental education department of Allegheny Land Trust as the vice president of education. Jessica holds degrees in Biology/Marine Science and Secondary Education/Biology from Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and is a Pennsylvania Association of Environmental Educators board member and state coordinator for Project WET (Water Education Today).
Sam Totoni
ROCIS Public Health Fellow 
Sam is a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, studying Environmental and Occupational Health. Her focus on Community Based Participatory Research led her to ROCIS. She is excited to be part of ROCIS’s unique approach providing people with tools for investigating their air quality and the resources to experiment with mitigation.
Thanks to The Heinz Endowments for support of the ROCIS initiative. 
(Reducing Outdoor Contaminants in Indoor Spaces)