What’s in the air outside my house? The personalized environmental sensor market is booming

What’s in the air outside my house? The personalized environmental sensor market is booming

By Natasha Jane Chrisandina

What’s in the air you’re breathing? Government agencies such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the European Environment Agency monitor air quality by measuring the level of pollutants like ozone, nitrous oxides, and small particles. However, the results displayed depend on where air quality monitors are placed and thus represent an average across the district rather than the specific air quality right outside your house. Furthermore, these monitors may not be placed in areas where air pollution is worse, skewing the results. With the popularity of personal devices that track everything from our meals to our heart rates, why not provide devices that track our local air, water, or soil quality, as well?

What air quality monitors can I get?

Consumer pollution monitoring devices can measure the amount of small particles in the air. For example, air can be drawn into a device by a fan, and a laser within the device will reflect any particles present. The reflections that fall within a certain size range (usually around 1 micrometer — by comparison, a strand of hair is around 100 micrometers wide) can then be counted to give an estimate of air quality.

Multiple companies currently make air pollution monitoring devices, including Aeroqual. Aeroqual’s monitors are handheld, so you can carry them with you to any location. They also have sensors to measure the levels of different gases in the air, such as ozone and carbon monoxide. The data collected can then be transferred to a computer for analysis. PurpleAir monitors upload all the data they collect to a centralized database and create a map of air quality that anyone can view online. This way, even those who do not own one of these devices can benefit from those who do. For an even more portable monitor, i-BLADES creates phone cases with built-in air quality monitors. Even smaller monitors are in the works, with Atmotube’s tracker that’s as small as a flash drive and detects gases like carbon monoxide, alongside the usual small particle detection.

Tracking water and soil qualities:

Portable monitors used to measure the quality of water and soil exist as well, although soil quality monitors are usually geared toward the agricultural industry or researchers instead of regular consumers. To measure the chlorine and pH levels of water, ATI makes a monitor that is contained within a briefcase and comes with upgrades for measuring the ozone level and water conductivities. For a quick handheld monitor that connects to your phone, In-Situ gives instant chlorine and pH readings. A new product that’s available now is a water monitor that quickly tells you whether your water is safe to drink or not by measuring its electrical field, eliminating the need to put the device in the water itself.

Impact on natural resource companies:

The ease of obtaining data on the quality of the air and water in your immediate surroundings may have an impact on natural resource companies in the area that release waste into the environment, but only if the community comes together and pushes for regulations on how companies need to treat their waste before releasing it. The community now has the capability to hold these companies accountable by using the data gathered from these monitors instead of simply relying on the government to do so. Companies, either out of moral obligation or concern for their image, could also make the first move and provide the community with monitors, especially in low-income areas where people are less likely to spend money on them. However, as long as communities do not band together to push for more data-based environmental regulations, companies will not have much incentive to initiate these efforts.

Monitor companies such as PurpleAir and Aclima are taking the initiative in working with local communities. PurpleAir has already supplied nonprofit organizations like Citizens for Clean Air in Colorado and the Central California Environmental Justice Network with monitors for entire areas of these states. Aclima, collaborating with Google, attached their monitors to Google’s Street View cars in the city of Denver to track air quality. By joining in this movement early, natural resource companies can stay in the good graces of the communities around them, and should at least be aware that increased monitoring could lead to increased community pressure or regulation.

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