Cheap sensors are democratizing air-quality data
A new generation of inexpensive, portable air-quality sensors is making it easier for citizen groups and individuals to monitor the air around them.
This is an article by Jason Plautz that originally ran in CityLab. You can read the entire article here. We love it so much we wanted to give our readers an excerpt.
Until she moved to Fresno, California in 2003, Janet DietzKamei had never experienced asthma. But after just a few years in a city notorious for its filthy air — the American Lung Association lists it in the five worst U.S. cities for air quality — DietzKamei found herself in the emergency room struggling to breathe.
She soon started staying inside on days when the air was thick with smog from nearby industry or traffic, and would check the local air-quality alerts every morning. But even that wasn’t enough — sometimes on days deemed safe by the air-quality index, she’d find herself gasping for breath.
If it’s bad, she said, “I just can’t breathe outside. Nothing is absorbed; I simply can’t breathe the air.”
Now 73, DietzKamei is coming off the first winter in years when she didn’t get sick at all. It’s all, she said, because of a $250 air sensor she put in her backyard, which sends her up-to-the-minute readings of pollution just outside her house, a more personalized and specific reading than she could get from the state’s stationary monitors miles away.
DietzKamei’s monitor, made by PurpleAir, is part of a network across California’s San Joaquin Valley, run in part by the Central California Environmental Justice Network. By putting monitors in backyards and around schools, the group is hoping to see what the area’s biomass plants and the dozens of trucks that rumble through are pumping into the lungs of disadvantaged residents.
Measuring air quality has been the purview of state environmental regulators, who rely on monitors approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that cost tens of thousands of dollars. That data is used to send out bad-air alerts (the green, orange, and red warning days) and for regulatory purposes.
But these readings show only a narrow slice of the air, based on a handful of monitors that may not be placed where the worst pollution is. Advances in technology have produced smaller sensors as cheap as $250, meaning that environmental activists, community groups, and curious citizens can map out air pollution around their schools, parks, or backyards.
This could eventually reshape air-pollution regulation, with previously unmeasured areas gathering data on air they say could violate federal health standards. In western Colorado, the environmental group Citizens for Clean Air has put up two dozen low-cost monitors around Grand Junction to supplement the two state-run monitors in the Grand Valley. In a region grappling with wildfire smoke, increased truck traffic, and natural-gas pollution, activists say a stronger web of monitors is necessary to prove to the state that more attention needs to be paid to them.
“The state does what they can with what they have to work with,” said Karen Sjoberg, the group’s leader. “They’ve got monitors in the best locations they can and they’ll do studies on that, but we need low-cost versions where we live.”
Even in large cities, which tend to get more attention because of their higher populations, low-cost sensors are being used to glean localized air-quality data. In addition to Fresno, take Salt Lake City, where pollution is a fact of life: The city sits in a basin, and wintertime inversions trap a thick coat of visible smog over the city for days at a time. Shea Wickelson, a high-school chemistry teacher at the Salt Lake Center for Science Education, said students begin thinking about pollution when recess is canceled on bad smog days.
“If you’re having that experience from elementary school, you’re very aware of air quality,” Wickelson said. “Students are coming up with questions like, ‘How is the air quality inside versus outside?,’ or ‘How does premium fuel compare to regular fuel?,’ or ‘How is the air around a school bus?’”
Answering those questions hasn’t been easy, but a partnership with the University of Utah has helped. To Learn how read the rest of the article here on CityLab.
We are entering a new era of environmental innovation that is driving better alignment between technology and environmental goals — and results. #FourthWave