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Minyak the Orangutan

Minyak the Orangutan: His "breeding behavior"

When the Los Angeles Zoo called IQAir to discuss the severe health problems of a 365-pound orangutan named “Minyak,” one veterinarian was already suggesting euthanasia. Minyak, who was born and raised at a research center in Georgia, was depressed, sickly and withdrawn. IQAir was asked to help by designing a custom air cleaning system. IQAir ParticleScan® laser particle counters were used to study the air Minyak was breathing, and it soon became evident he was suffering from exposure to unencapsulated fiberglass and other airborne pollutants. A custom IQAir air filtration system reduced airborne particles by more than 85 percent and Minyak's strength, energy and “breeding behavior” soon returned.

IQAir system(s) selected by Minyak the Orangutan: ParticleScan

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Minyak the Orangutan

Particle scanners are a tool commonly used in the indoor air quality industry. They give a quantitative and accurate measurement of airborne particle concentrations in normal and polluted indoor and outdoor environments. Advanced laser particle counters have a wide range of applications. They are used in cleanrooms to verify particle levels, to test HEPA and ULPA filters for efficiency and leakage, and they are used to inspect HVAC equipment and ducting. We can now add a new use to this versatile tool – it can help find the source of air pollution. This case study's specific application was to track down the source of an orangutan's air quality issue.

Introduction

The orangutan I am speaking of is named Minyak. He is a 23 year old male purebred Borneo, 365 pound orangutan. Purebred Borneo males like Minyak are rare and considered very valuable to those who are working to preserve the orangutan species. Minyak was born at Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia. It has in the past housed more than 3,500 gorillas, great apes, orangutans, chimpanzees, and other primates at one time on its vast campus. When Yerkes shifted its research away from the large primates, the research programs that used them were shut down and the animals were placed in zoos and sanctuaries around the country, all except for Minyak. Minyak sat in solitary confinement for more than two years while his keepers looked for a new home for him. Minyak was something of a hard luck case. He had developed tonsillitis when he was only two years old. The living conditions of a research animal are often not the best. Some develop a condition called airsacculitis, an infection of the air sac on the base of the neck that great apes use to bellow. Minyak's airsacculitis became a chronic condition, and then he developed chronic pneumonia. He was often so sick he would just sit in his cage and not move. The long term illnesses gave him depression. One veterinarian who worked at Yerkes suggested Minyak be euthanized. She thought no zoo would ever take the sick animal, and even though he was very valuable as a purebred orangutan for potential breeding – she didn't think his health would ever recover enough that he could breed. Minyak's plight came to the attention of Jennie McNary, Curator of Mammals at the Los Angeles Zoo. Jennie McNary urged her zoo to take in the potentially burdensome orangutan with the long list of health problems. She felt that the warm dry sunny Southern California climate would be good for Minyak. She also knew that if Minyak's health could be recovered he could mate with her zoo's three Borneo females.I received a phone call from Dr. Leah Greer at the zoo. Dr. Greer was the head veterinarian working with Minyak. She knew that my company specialized in medical grade air cleaning systems. She had an unusual request – could we build an air cleaning system for Minyak? I needed to see the facility and understand their air quality goals.

Diagnostic Procedure

The first thing I did when I got to the zoo was to take ParticleScan measurements. I was going to need to quantify Minyak's air quality. Dr. Greer met me at the zoo security station. As we drove up to the area where they housed the orangutans, she detailed for me the work they had done with Minyak. She had put him on antidepressants to help him get over his years in solitary confinement. She was treating his infections aggressively with a nebulizer and antibiotics, and she had led a team of surgeons on an innovative procedure to remove Minyak's infected air sac. She told me Minyak had recovered well at the hospital after his surgery but had begun to go downhill after being moved to live at the Orangutan Habitat. This gave me a hunch – something must have changed in Minyak's air quality between when he was at the hospital and when he was moved to the Orangutan Habitat. The Orangutan Habitat itself was an impressive building. It was a large and spacious concrete structure. There was an outdoor play area and indoor bedrooms spoke to Dr. Greer about installing an air cleaning system into Minyak's bedroom. The room offered enough enclosure that with a few high output systems pumping in fresh filtered air we could create a positive pressurized environment for Minyak. We could put Plexiglas over the windows and openings so he could still see out and his keepers could see in.The first thing I needed to do, though, was an air quality diagnostic on Minyak's indoor environment. The normal steps I would take for an air quality inspection would be:

  1. Get 6 outdoor air quality readings. (The outdoor reading was very good for Los Angeles. The average particles per cubic foot was 950,000 (0.3 microns or larger). This was within normal range for Los Angeles outdoors. A bad day would be in range of 3 million.)
  2. Get 6 air intake readings. (I measured the air quality readings for the air that the HVAC system takes in to be redistributed throughout the facility. It was about 950,000.)
  3. Get 6 room readings. (standing in 6 different locations in the room). Average the readings. (It was when I went to take the room readings indoors that the ParticleScan count began to concern me. In Minyak's bedroom the average of six readings was 10 million. This was more than three times worse than a smoggy day. I was surprised by the reading as well because the indoor air didn't seem bad to me. If it wasn't for the ParticleScan reading I wouldn't have known that it was unhealthy air.)
  4. Get 6 supply vent readings. (I stood directly under the supply vent to begin my first of six readings. I watched as the ParticleScan reading climbed immediately to 12 million as I held the inflow tube directly to the source of the vent. The reading was higher at the vent than in the room. I knew right away what was wrong. There was a problem with the HVAC system. Most likely it was exposed fiberglass. Every time it turned on the invisible dust was blowing into Minyak's bedroom. This was what was making him sicker.)

An additional factor was the ozone water purification system located within 20 feet of the facility. I tested the ozone levels in Minyak's bedroom. They were slightly higher than normal due to the ozone created by the system. This was another factor that contributed to Minyak's illness. Ozone creates a myriad of ultra-fine aerosols and volatile chemicals. Remediation I went straight back to our office and called an air duct cleaning company. We scheduled to get them there the next day. We needed them to:

  1. Encapsulate the fiberglass insulation in the HVAC system and
  2. clean the metal ducts.

The company sent a full crew to get the work done as quickly as possible for the zoo. I took ParticleScan readings before and after their work was finished. The readings were now normal. What was coming out of the ducts was actually a little lower than the outdoor air reading. The newly changed electrostatic filters were removing a small percentage of the particulate matter in the air. We were able to start installing Minyak's air cleaning system the very next day. This system was designed to provide positively pressured filtered air to Minyak to combat the ultra-fine particles and chemical soup that the ozone created. Minyak's air cleaning system was a unique design. It worked around the interesting obstacles that cleaning the air for an orangutan presented, such as making sure there were no exposed nuts or bolts his powerful fingers could play with, and no parts an inquisitive primate could disassemble. Most importantly – it worked. We turned on the system to test the design and left a ParticleScan scan running in Minyak's room. Within an hour the particle level was already down 85%. Minyak was on his way to a healthier indoor environment.The big test, though, was going to be the long haul. Was purified air going to help the orangutan with lung problems?

Observed Results

Dr. Greer emailed me after the system had been in place for about two months. Minyak was doing so well she had already been able to take him off of one of his medications, and she thought she would soon be able to take him off his other medications. Minyak's health was recovering wonderfully. The best news of all, though, came in a letter just this week from one of Minyak's keepers. They had introduced a female orangutan, Klima, to Minyak and he and his new girlfriend were getting along very well. Minyak was healthy enough now to have a companion, and his years of loneliness and isolation were over. The keeper's letter noted that Minyak and Klima had been observed in "breeding behavior." I'm not fully sure what "breeding behavior" is a euphemism for, but I think we may be seeing a new baby orangutan at the Los Angeles Zoo in the near future. Minyak's strength and energy are obviously recovering.

Discussion and Conclusion

There are many aspects of this tale that are an amazing testimonial to the kindness and compassion that the zoo staff brought forth to make Minyak's life better. The thing that astounds me the most, though, is the role that the ParticleScan played in all this. Minyak's sensitive lungs were being assaulted by something invisible – the dust from the exposed fiberglass. HVAC systems with unencapulated fiberglass are common around the world and many people are breathing bad air every day because of them. In this case, though, the invisible was able to be seen, even when the person using the device couldn't perceive the problem with the naked eye. It told us there was a problem. It told us the air was bad. It told us where the bad air was coming from. It told us what we needed to do to help Minyak.

Acknowledgements

The author gratefully acknowledges the Los Angeles Zoo for their care and dedication in improving the life of Minyak.

References

May, Jeffrey. My House is Killing Me! The Home Guide for Families with Allergies and Asthma. University Press, 2001.Sarwar, Golam; Corsi, Richard; Allen, David; Weschler, Charles. 2003 The Significance of Secondary Organic Aerosol Formation and Growth in Buildings: Experimental and Computational Evidence. Atmospheric Environment, vol. 37 (9-10): 1365-1381Wolkoff P; Clausen PA; Wilkins CK; Nielsen GD. Formation of Strong Airway Irritants in Terpene/Ozone Mixtures. Indoor Air; 2000 June, Vol. 10, Issue 2, Page 82.Glory Dolphin, CIE, is CEO of IQAir North America. She has been involved in the development of affordable customized air cleaning solutions for residential, medical and commercial applications for nearly 10 years. After graduating with a Bachelors of Science in Business Administration from the University of Southern California she went to work with the Switzerland based IQAir Group. Recently she successfully partnered IQAir North America with the American Lung Association. She can be reached by email at gdolphin@iqair.com or by phone at (562) 903-7600.

"This article originally appears in Volume 5, Issue 8 (June 2004) of Indoor Environment Connections newspaper and is reprinted with permission. For subscription information, visit www.ieconnections.com."

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Minyak the Orangutan