Sensing Air Quality in Oxfordshire

Kayla Schulte
Jun 26, 2018 · 5 min read

I teamed up with Oxford Friends of the Earth to host a demonstration of a small, low-cost air pollution sensor during the Oxford Green Week ‘Big Green Day Out’ on Saturday, June 9th. The goal of this demonstration was to start conversations about low-cost, portable air quality sensors and to discuss why we would want to monitor local air quality conditions.

These small, often portable air quality sensors are now widely available for public purchase online. They vary in cost (approx. £90 — £3000, $100 — $5000), size, what pollutants they measure, and the methods they use to measure those pollutants. Small air quality sensors can also be DIY (do-it-yourself), and different groups like Public Lab and Smart Citizen walk you through how to put together a sensor. Many of the flashier, commercially available sensors connect automatically with apps or websites that produce visual representations of what pollution concentrations look like in your immediate surroundings. Some of them look like this:

The sensor used during our demo was a prototype developed by OxAir (Oxford air quality mapping project, launching in the next year — more info coming soon!). The prototype used an Alphasense optical particle counter (laser used to count particles) to measure particulate matter (PM) at 10 and 2.5 micrometers. For comparison, a strand of human hair is 50–70 micrometers in diameter, so these particulates are quite small. Pollen can range from 100 to 0.006 micrometers!

Smaller, portable sensors allow us to imagine what air quality looks like at more local scales and in real-time. It is important to note however that sensors vary in accuracy — as a result, the data collected using smaller, low-cost air sensors is largely non-admissible in a court of law. Visit www.aqmd.gov/aq-spec/evaluations to see how different low-cost sensors perform.

Me & the OxFOE volunteers at the Big Green Day Out

Experiences of air in general are highly personal — they are instinctual, health-related, and even spiritual. All living (and non-living) entities on this planet have an inherent relationship with the air. New technologies are allowing us to extend our senses of the air through digital space. With decades of research tying certain pollutants to specific health consequences, particularly among vulnerable groups (children, elderly, those with pre-existing conditions), it is important to tap into these new streams of digitally-derived information.

The most commonly measured air pollutants are: particulate matter (PM10, PM2.5), ozone (O3), carbon monoxide (CO), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen dioxide (NOx). Exposure to mixtures of these pollutants (multipollutant exposure) can also have serious health consequences. Very generally, larger particulate matter tends to affect the respiratory system, while smaller particles affect the heart. This can contribute to or exacerbate asthma, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) and lung cancer. Ozone affects the respiratory system and can be likened to receiving an internal, low-grade sunburn. Ozone exposures have also recently been linked to the release of stress hormones, which correlates to serious health conditions (Henriquez et al, 2017).

These pollutants are regulated by regional and national governments. The U.S. has developed the Air Quality Index, which reports on daily air quality conditions across the country using data from approximately 4000 stationary monitors (FRM/FEM). The UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) provides a Daily Air Quality Index and forecast using data from a network of 164 stationary monitors (AURN) across the UK.

Map of stationary monitors across the UK (https://uk-air.defra.gov.uk/interactive-map)

Local air quality monitoring has the potential to illuminate areas across Oxfordshire that suffer from poorer air quality conditions — such as the St. Clements road region. As a relatively new resident of Oxfordshire, I was surprised to learn about how bad the air quality was in certain parts of the county. In 2014, Public Health England estimated the mortality burden attributed to long term fine (2.5 mm or smaller) particulate matter exposure in Oxfordshire to be equivalent to 276 deaths (Age 25+) and equivalent to 2944 life years lost. On the whole, the estimated cost of air pollution to individuals and society in the UK is more than £20 billion per year.

There is still a lot that is unknown about the effects of air pollution on human health and the environment. Having worked alongside researchers at universities around the world, and with decision makes at the state and federal level in the United States (I was formerly with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), I’ve picked up on a tendency for “higher-ups” to avoid engaging in conversations and sharing information out of fear of inaccuracy or misinterpretation. This is certainly a viable concern, but modern societies already suffer immensely from a lack of venues where open and safe conversations can take place among individuals with diverse experiences and knowledges.

By definition, a democratic society is founded upon ample and inclusive spaces where challenging, political conversations can take place. Although digital spaces like Facebook, Twitter, and even this very platform (Medium) have emerged as an alternatives to traditional democratic venues, there are still major sociocultural barriers embedded throughout these spaces that regulate how/when information gets shared. On top of this, being ‘political’ or discussing politics has become demonised — in the U.S. in particular since the Cold War. It is important to remember though that the ‘political’ cannot be avoided, it is rather a quality that is intrinsic to any idea or conversation that touches on your rights as a citizen of the world.

I feel a widespread lack of healthy criticism, and a confidence that individuals can come to their own, personal understandings of the world around them, is stifling important flows of information about local environmental conditions. Fear is bizarrely pervasive and stagnating. So I’ve spent my professional life searching for existing and unchartered spaces to foster inclusive, creative, participatory AND productive/proactive approaches to environmental-political challenges. I will be presenting my latest research on this, relating to air quality sensing devices and platforms, at the 2018 Air Sensors International Conference at UC Davis, September 12–15.

It has been so incredible being invited into the Oxford Friends of the Earth space and helping carry out their commitment to environmental protection & awareness. Oxford Friends of the Earth has recently launched the Oxfordshire Clean Air Charter, and we asking everyone to READ and SIGN on to encourage the city, county and district councils to implement stricter controls on air pollution throughout Oxfordshire.

Click here to check out our OxFoE Quick Air Quality Sensing Guide!

Launching the Oxfordshire Clean Air Charter with the OxFOE crew

Translator terrestrielle + explorer of digital spaces | environmental social scientist at U. of Oxford @kaylloquial

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