Public Lab Research note

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Public Lab awarded NSF funding to help develop low-cost community formaldehyde monitoring technique

by nshapiro with Becki , gretchengehrke |

(Header image: A woman in Oklahoma attempts to document formaldehyde's effects on her son with her smart phone. Photo by Akasha Rabut)


Americans spend 90% of their time indoors where they are exposed to a complex mixture of chemicals, including formaldehyde. Despite established health effects, concerned citizens currently have no method to inexpensively and reliably measure their formaldehyde exposure. In 2014, Public Lab made its first incursion into this large-scale and underappreciated environmental health issue when @nshapiro attempted to adapt a low cost formaldehyde test kit developed by Karen Dannemiller and colleagues in 2013. @mathew developed a robust shipping and calibration method. We were on the verge of establishing a lending library using this method when @gretchengehrke and @nshapiro conducted side-by-side testing of this method (which used a Kitagawa colormetric tube to quantify formaldehyde) with the Rhode Island Department of Health’s sampling equipment and high performance liquid chromotogrophy (HPLC) analysis method (EPA Method T0-11A). Comparing these two test methods demonstrated that the readout of the tubes Public Lab was planning on using were influenced by other ketones and aldehydes as was noted as a potential limitation in the peer-reviewed paper that had not yet been tested. At that point we put our formaldehyde monitoring project into a holding pattern as we didn’t feel confident enough in the quantitative capability of this instrument. We reported our findings back to Dannemiller, and after a series of conference calls in the spring of 2016 we developed a plan to build upon this initial work and redesign the formaldehyde measurement system. We submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF) Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) program, which is a “high-risk, high-yield” funding mechanism for potentially transformative research.

EAGER: Collaborative Research: SmartPhone App for Residential Testing of Formaldehyde (SmART-Form)

Current methods for monitoring formaldehyde require expensive analytical instruments that are prone to contamination, suffer from interfering compounds, or are difficult to complete. The goal of this work is to develop and launch an accessible, inexpensive and reliable formaldehyde detection technique for use in citizen science. Public lab will lead the community co-design aspect of a free smartphone application which will be used to analyze formaldehyde levels by detecting color change of a badge being manufactured by an industry partner, Morphix Technologies, with a price point goal of $5 per badge. Design of the application will be led by Karen Dannemiller (PI) and Rongjun Qin (Co-PI) at Ohio State University. Jianshun Zhang (Co-PI) of the Building Energy and Environmental Systems Laboratory (BEESL) at Syracuse University, will conduct the independent validation of the badge and analytical application. Jessica Castner (University at Buffalo) will incorporate an environmental health perspective into the design. Nick Shapiro (Co-PI) with Gretchen Gehrke is leading Public Lab’s co-development of these technologies, engaging both community scientists on a national level and with a sustained relationship with community scientists in Waycross, GA that will be supplied with free test kits and supported in conducting a case study. A lead organizer of Waycross’ @SilentDisater will receive a stipend as a collaborator on this project. The grant totals $99,985 of which $10,987 is allocated to Public Lab.

We hope that citizen scientists will feel ownership of the device through the use of a collaborative development approach. The project has three objectives: 1.) To develop a colorimetric formaldehyde detection badge and novel Smartphone-based App to read the badge. During the 24 hour sampling period, a citizen scientist will use their Smartphone to take before and after pictures, and the App will process the pixel colorimetry data to display the formaldehyde concentration. Community feedback will be incorporated in the design throughout development. Independent verification at BEESL will confirm that badges function properly. 2.) To ensure adoption of the new technology by the citizen science community and concerned citizens. This will be done by partnering with Morphix Technologies to manufacture the device at low cost and by reaching out to the Public Lab community. 3.) To make the collected data publicly available to citizen scientists for interpretation. Results will be interpreted and published in an open-access manuscript and information will also be summarized in blog posts/research notes on the Public Lab website. An online community forum will allow for continued community feedback, discussions, and information sharing.

Next step

We will reach out again in January, as we begin the co-development process. We’ll be wading through IRBs (ethics review boards) until then!

Prototyping another path for PL tool development

This grant does mark a different approach to tool co-design than Public Lab’s traditional in-house development. In this way, this project is somewhat of a new direction for Public Lab as we are handling the community side, and not both technical and community. With our academic partners, we are hoping to achieve a higher degree of accuracy and precision with this instrument than what we could accomplish in-house, and with our industry partners, they will be able to produce the badges at a lower price point than if we were to produce this in-house and they also provide additional experience in terms of shelf-life, quality assurance, and other manufacturing considerations. What won’t change in this project is the commitment to openly sharing and licensing the fruits of our collective labor. The code for the smartphone app will be open sourced, open licensed and hosted on github. There are many other potential community science applications that this smartphone image analysis technology might support beyond formaldehyde detection, H2S monitoring with photo paper being just one that springs to mind. Should the community desire this function, we are also interested in creating a public database of anonymized indoor formaldehyde readings that could be used for public knowledge and research.

Let us know if you have any thoughts or suggestions as we head into this collaboration.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No.1645090 “EAGER: Collaborative Research: SmartPhone App for Residential Testing of Formaldehyde (SmART-Form).” Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

collaboration software formaldehyde wherewebreathe open-air with:gretchengehrke indoor-air nsf with:becki


I think this is great! I hope H2S can be a project also.

Thanks, @danbeavers! I'm hoping it works well and we can develop many more applications!

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