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Indoor air exposures to VOCs and mould and relationship with severe asthma

Project Description

3 Year PhD Studentship available for September 2020

Department: Health Sciences
Supervisors: Prof Anna Hansell, Dr Rebecca Cordell, Prof Salman Siddiqui
Eligibility: UK/EU applicants only

Project Description

People spend 80-90% of their time indoors, yet relatively little is known about exposures in the indoor environment at home or work. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are ubiquitous in indoor and outdoor air, and moulds are common in homes but measurement information on exposures in homes and workplaces including hospitals is very limited.

Public Health England have recently published, for the first time, indoor air quality guidelines for VOCs in the UK (Shrubsole 2019, Public Health England 2019). These cover 11 individual VOCs: acetaldehyde, α-pinene, benzene, D-limonene, formaldehyde, naphthalene, styrene, tetrachloroethylene, toluene, tricholorethylene and xylenes – of which seven (acetaldehyde, α-pinene, D-limonene, formaldehye, styrene, toluene and xylenes) are recognised respiratory irritants. Total VOCs (TVOCs) was suggested as an indicator for indoor air quality, but no total guideline level was proposed.

The WHO indoor air quality guidelines 2009 reported estimates of visible dampness in 20% of European and North American homes, with ‘mould or damp’ reports in 50% of homes (WHO 2009). Damp not only increases risk of mould, but also is known to increase volatile organic compound emissions from building materials and also to increase their concentrations e.g. moist air is able to contain more formaldehyde. Moulds themselves also produce volatile organic compounds (WHO, 2009). Moulds trigger and potentially also initiate allergic diseases such as allergic rhinitis and asthma (Jaakkola 2013, Quansah 2012).

This project will provide information on indoor VOC and mould exposures and relate these to health outcomes in severe asthma patients. The PhD will have the following components:

Year 1: review of literature and laboratory/statistical analysis of already collected and analysed VOC samples from hospital settings using multidimensional gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GCxGC-MS).

Year 1&2: development of new laboratory techniques to identify and quantify specific VOCs - two of the compounds listed in the guidelines are difficult (acetaldehyde) or impossible (formaldehyde) to measure with the existing methodology used for other VOCs and new specific methods need to be developed to derivative and analyse those specific compounds

Years 1-3: setting up and conducting a case-control study of severe asthmatics attending clinics at Leicester hospitals to compare fungal and VOC exposures in patient homes and relate these to patient symptoms. The study will compare patients with known fungal sensitisation who have severe eosinophilic asthma (SEA) to non-sensitised SEA controls and healthy volunteers. The population studied will be enriched with exacerbation-prone patients at risk of progression to high cost therapies (i.e. with > 2 exacerbation in the previous year). Sputum samples will be collected for fungal and bacterial microbiome, alongside indoor VOC assessment.

The studentship will involve training and development of a range of skillsets and excellent experience in interdisciplinary working. In particular, it will involve laboratory analysis, statistical analysis, exposure science and epidemiology to provide information that can be readily translated into healthcare guidelines. The ideal student would be expected to have experience of some of these fields, but training will be provided as part of the studentship.

Entry requirements

UK Bachelor degree at 2:1 or above (or overseas equivalent) in chemistry, biochemistry, biological sciences, ideally with some laboratory experience (or equivalent from non UK universities).

A master’s degree in a relevant subject (including public health, epidemiology or similar) would be an advantage. Good quantitative statistical skills.

The University of Leicester English language requirements apply where applicable.

How to apply

Please refer to the application advice and link to the online application at

In the funding section of the application please state HS Hansell 2020 project in the space provided

In the proposal section please provide the name of the supervisor and project – you do not need to submit a research proposal

Project / Funding Enquiries: Prof Anna Hansell (); Dr Rebecca Cordell ()

Application enquiries to

Closing date for applications: 31 March 2020

Funding Notes

3 year Health Sciences Studentship providing a stipend at UKRI rates (£15,285 for 2020/21) and tuition fees at UK/EU rates.


English Housing Survey Headline Report 2017-18 (

Jaakkola MS, Quansah R, Hugg TT, Heikkinen SA, Jaakkola JJ. Association of indoor dampness and molds with rhinitis risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2013;132(5):1099–1110.e18. doi:10.1016/j.jaci.2013.07.028

Public Health England. Indoor air quality guidelines for selected Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in the UK. Public Health England, London, UK 2019.

Quansah R, Jaakkola MS, Hugg TT, Heikkinen SA, Jaakkola JJ. Residential dampness and molds and the risk of developing asthma: a systematic review and meta-analysis [published correction appears in PLoS One. 2014;9(3):e93454]. PLoS One. 2012;7(11):e47526. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0047526

Shrubsole C et al. IAQ guidelines for selected volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the UK. Building and Environment 2019;165:106382

Shelter press release,_including_vermin-infested,_damp_or_dangerous_homes2

WHO Guidelines for Indoor Air Quality Dampness and Mould, 2009

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