Commemorating 20 years of Indoor Air


In Metaphors We Live By (University of Chicago Press, 1980), Lakoff and Johnson posit that ‘metaphor is not just a matter of language… on the contrary, human thought processes are largely metaphorical.’ Pinker expresses a similar view: ‘metaphor is so widespread in language that it’s hard to find expressions for abstract ideas that are not metaphorical’ (The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, Viking, 2007). The role of metaphor in thought and language has been on my mind as I’ve been reflecting on how best to introduce this issue of Indoor Air, which features five articles commemorating the journal’s 20th anniversary.

The research enterprise explores uncharted lands where new truths – rich, complex, multifaceted – are waiting to be discovered. Intrepid investigators prepare themselves for these journeys through years of study. They obtain support from benefactors, public or private. They assemble teams and necessary equipment. And then they venture into the wilderness. When they successfully return, the explorers report – in the pages of journals like Indoor Air– how they traveled, where they went, and what they found. Seminal research ventures far into the unknown, opening vast new spaces for subsequent exploration and development.

Clearly, metaphors are valuable teaching devices. An incompletely understood system can be mapped by inference and analogy to another that is better known so as to yield new insights. At the same time, by relying on connotation, the effectiveness of communication by metaphor is limited by culture and by previous experience. For example, my use of the metaphor ‘research as exploration’ draws on my family’s century-long presence on the west coast of the United States. In California, history education is steeped in stories of Ferdinand Magellan, Christopher Columbus, and Lewis and Clark. Does this metaphor of ‘research as exploration’ resonate as well for those who were raised in Europe or in Asia?

Each issue of Indoor Air chronicles significant new discoveries about indoor environmental quality and health. In the first 20 volumes, from 1991 through 2010, we published 94 regular issues plus 11 supplements, 843 original or review articles, and 8931 pages. (Trust me. I counted them!) The authors who publish in Indoor Air have recorded substantial achievements that advance our understanding of indoor environmental conditions in nonindustrial buildings, the factors influencing those conditions, their significance for human health, and opportunities for improvement. The five commemorative articles published in this issue are exemplars of their class and provide a perspective on indoor environmental research as a whole.

Research is a human enterprise. We strive to discern objective truths and to report those findings honestly and forthrightly. But worldviews, historical context, funding opportunities, and social priorities, among many other factors, strongly influence research goals. To understand where we are as a research community and how we might best proceed, it is helpful to have a close look at where we have been. The first article in this collection is a narrative account by Indoor Air’s founding editor, David Grimsrud, of the circumstances surrounding the journal’s establishment and its early years. Although the history of Indoor Air begins in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there are important earlier histories that contributed seminally to the development of our international research community. One important history unfolded in Denmark, and the article by Finn Gyntelberg and Ib Andersen provides a compelling eyewitness account of that time.

Review articles, important in any scholarly community, are especially so in broadly multidisciplinary fields. Outstanding review articles do more than assemble key references and organize the presented information. They also provide a critical synthesis that teaches the reader more than might be learned by reading the original works. In the history of Indoor Air, we have published many strong review articles. One style of review is undertaken by a multidisciplinary team and follows structured procedural rules. Noteworthy examples from the journal’s first two decades include the articles by Carl-Gustaf Bornehag et al. on building dampness and health (Indoor Air11, 72, 2001), Pawel Wargocki et al. on ventilation and health (Indoor Air12, 113, 2002), and Yuguo Li et al. on the relationship between building ventilation and airborne infection (Indoor Air17, 2, 2007). Among the commemorative articles presented here is another review of this type, reporting an effort led by Jan Sundell and Hal Levin, which assessed the relationship between building ventilation rate and occupant health effects. This article is especially timely given societal concerns about anthropogenic climate change and the consequent, potentially ill-advised efforts to reduce building ventilation rates to save energy.

The other type of review article typically develops from efforts of one or a few scholars to synthesize a body of literature on a particular topic. Influential examples from the journal’s first two decades include Peder Wolkoff’s summary of volatile organic compounds (Indoor Air5 Suppl. 3, 1, 1995), Charlie Weschler’s review of indoor ozone (Indoor Air10, 269, 2000), and Mark Mendell and Garvin Heath’s review of indoor air quality in schools and its effects on student performance (Indoor Air15, 27, 2005). In the present issue, Charlie Weschler distills the essence of what research over the past two decades has taught us about indoor air chemistry.

In May 2010, Geo Clausen gathered ten experienced researchers from the indoor air community for a daylong retreat north of Copenhagen. Through guided exercises, we examined the state of our research field and of our research community. That meeting provided inspiration and raw material for the fifth commemorative article in this issue, ‘Reflections on the State of Research: Indoor Environmental Quality.’

The concept for publishing special articles to commemorate Indoor Air’s 20th anniversary was born at an editors’ meeting in Syracuse, NY, during the Healthy Buildings 2009 conference. During 2010, his final year as editor-in-chief, Jan Sundell spearheaded the effort to transform that vision into reality. Additional commemorative articles are pending for publication during 2011. And, we are working with the publisher to have all of the commemorative articles available in a virtual issue on the journal’s home page, in addition to appearing in a print issue.

These articles remind us that we can all take considerable pride in the work that we do to improve the state of knowledge about indoor environmental quality and health. This field of research is important, interesting, and difficult. One might be discouraged about the limited size of our community in relation to the scale of the challenges we face. However, it has always been that great discoveries are made by small and determined groups of explorers.