Human occupancy as a source of indoor airborne bacteria

PLoS One. 2012;7(4):e34867. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0034867. Epub 2012 Apr 18.


Exposure to specific airborne bacteria indoors is linked to infectious and noninfectious adverse health outcomes. However, the sources and origins of bacteria suspended in indoor air are not well understood. This study presents evidence for elevated concentrations of indoor airborne bacteria due to human occupancy, and investigates the sources of these bacteria. Samples were collected in a university classroom while occupied and when vacant. The total particle mass concentration, bacterial genome concentration, and bacterial phylogenetic populations were characterized in indoor, outdoor, and ventilation duct supply air, as well as in the dust of ventilation system filters and in floor dust. Occupancy increased the total aerosol mass and bacterial genome concentration in indoor air PM(10) and PM(2.5) size fractions, with an increase of nearly two orders of magnitude in airborne bacterial genome concentration in PM(10). On a per mass basis, floor dust was enriched in bacterial genomes compared to airborne particles. Quantitative comparisons between bacterial populations in indoor air and potential sources suggest that resuspended floor dust is an important contributor to bacterial aerosol populations during occupancy. Experiments that controlled for resuspension from the floor implies that direct human shedding may also significantly impact the concentration of indoor airborne particles. The high content of bacteria specific to the skin, nostrils, and hair of humans found in indoor air and in floor dust indicates that floors are an important reservoir of human-associated bacteria, and that the direct particle shedding of desquamated skin cells and their subsequent resuspension strongly influenced the airborne bacteria population structure in this human-occupied environment. Inhalation exposure to microbes shed by other current or previous human occupants may occur in communal indoor environments.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollution, Indoor*
  • Bacteria* / classification
  • Bacteria* / genetics
  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Humans
  • Particle Size
  • Particulate Matter*
  • Phylogeny
  • Schools
  • Ventilation


  • Particulate Matter