How Personal Air Quality Monitoring Gadgets Could Raise Public Awareness

And you could even make your own

  • A new inexpensive air quality monitor could let you keep track of pollution. 
  • Personal air monitors are necessary because pollution varies widely depending on location. 
  • Monitors can help science by sending information to databases.
Pollution rising from cars in traffic during a morning commute.

hirun / Getty Images

Monitoring your air quality could soon get easier and cheaper. 

Researchers have developed an open-source version of a low-cost, mobile pollution detector that could enable people to track air quality more widely. Experts say air pollution is a growing problem, and keeping track of air quality in your environment can help. 

"Particularly in dense urban environments, air quality changes every block, mostly impacted by emitters like traffic and commercial kitchens," Jake Reed Smith, a graduate researcher in Mechanical Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, told Lifewire in an email interview. "The exposure from hyper-local conditions can completely overwhelm the 'baseline' emissions level that weather stations or government sources are likely to report. Here in Pittsburgh, industrial emitters aren't always located near the county's EPA-approved air quality stations. So, personal devices are the only choice for individuals who want to know their exposure to pollutants."

Smart Monitors

The World Health Organization estimates that air pollution contributes to over 4 million premature deaths worldwide annually. Despite these alarming figures, air pollution is not always widely measured. MIT researchers say their mobile pollution detector, Flatburn, can be made by 3D printing or ordering inexpensive parts. The researchers have now tested and calibrated it with existing state-of-the-art machines. They are publicly releasing all the information about it—how to build, use, and interpret the data.

"The goal is for community groups or individual citizens anywhere to be able to measure local air pollution, identify its sources, and, ideally, create feedback loops with officials and stakeholders to create cleaner conditions," Carlo Ratti, director of MIT's Senseable City Lab, said in a news release.

The detectors are battery-powered and rechargeable, either from power sources or a solar panel, with data stored on a card in the device that can be accessed remotely.

"Not everyone is equally vulnerable to the same hazard and exposure, but for those who have specific vulnerabilities (e.g., asthma, chemical sensitivity, immune system issues, etc.), knowing potential exposure levels is important as it relates to possible risk/harm," Allen Rathey, the director of the Indoor Health Council told Lifewire in an email interview. 

Devices to Track Pollution

The MIT gadget is one of a growing number of devices for personal use that can monitor pollution. Room or area air-quality monitors include those that can measure carbon monoxide, which is a deadly but odorless invisible gas, carbon dioxide, particle counters that count airborne particles in the 2.5-micron size range which may impact those with or cause respiratory problems, and volatile organic compound (VOC) detection devices. 

"Airborne particles are the simplest to measure, and units such as those made by Dylos (e.g., Dylos DC1100) work as long as you remember that sampled room levels are different than what is personally inhaled," Rathey said. 

Reducing airborne dust means there is less to inhale and remove later as it settles, Rathey noted. Airborne dust can also lead to build-up in electronics causing shortened component life through overheating and a possible fire hazard. 

Someone looking out over a city blanketed in a light layer of air pollution.

Kohei Hara / Getty Images

"VOC detection devices are of somewhat limited use unless you are tracking a specific VOC such as formaldehyde; even then, VOCs exist in mixtures or chemical soups, so isolating one or several may not convey the risk depending on individual vulnerabilities and other unknowns," Rathey said. 

For some pollutants, the best device is free, Smith said. Your nose can detect more contaminants than any commercial sensor, as each has different blind spots. "The best strategy for personal devices is to go for multiple affordable or cheap sensors rather than one expensive one—they all have 'blind spots' to certain chemicals, so the more kinds of sensing you have, the better," he added. 

Pollution monitoring devices also help advance science. Personal devices can crowd-source data on pollution by connecting to a shared network, allowing users to contribute their measurements to a collective database, John Ward, an account executive at Mold Busters, said via email. 

"This effort gives a more comprehensive and localized understanding of air pollution, which can reveal patterns and hotspots not captured by traditional monitoring stations," Ward said. "This data can be used by researchers, policymakers, and environmental organizations to design targeted interventions, assess the effectiveness of pollution control measures, and raise public awareness about air quality issues."

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