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Air Quality Monitors Are Quickly Becoming 2019’s Must-Have Gadget

October 27, 2019, 11:00 AM UTC

As fires ravaged California this week, Bay Area residents received a public warning to stay inside. The reason: Traveling smoke from the Kincade Fire had made outdoor air unhealthy to breathe. The smoke, full of particulate matter, could lodge into people’s lungs, causing various respiratory dangers—especially to young children.

Indeed, worsening air quality from the California blaze along with the globe’s other raging infernos—including those devouring forests in Brazil, Alaska, and Serbia—are taking a toll on human health. Over the last decade, medical research has shown a link between poor air quality and health problems like heart attacks, asthma, and premature death. Meanwhile, research by Harvard, Yale, Columbia, the University of California, the World Bank, and Bain & Co., have even suggested that high pollution contributes to poor job performance, lower productivity, and sick days.

Awareness of the danger air pollution poses to health has also grown, resulting in—among other things—technologies designed to help people breathe a sigh of relief. With names like AirVisual, Airmon, Awair, Huma-i, Temtop, Atmotube, and Flow, a crop of small, portable monitors priced under $300 promise to tell consumers what they’re inhaling on a minute-by-minute basis—whether it’s exposure to pollutants on a daily commute, or wildfire smoke on a morning run. And unlike the air quality monitoring smartphone apps that provide general data for a city or larger area, these devices provide measurements for users’ exact locations, whether it’s a specific neighborhood block or inside a house.

Varying from the size of a salt shaker to a large smartphone, these low cost air quality monitors offer a variety of features. For instance, the $260 IQAir is about the size of a small paperback book with a full screen that displays the current conditions, weather forecasts, and suggestions on how to mitigate poor air quality, whether it’s wearing a mask outdoors or running an air purifier indoors. The $179 Flow monitor, meanwhile, is six inches tall, weighs 11 ounces and measures particulate matter, nitrous oxides, and volatile organic compounds. It’s meant to be clipped onto clothing or a backpack, so it can beam information to a mobile app it connects to via Bluetooth.

In an increasingly polluted world, these kinds of micro-monitoring devices may be key to health—and survival. According to new study by the Environmental Defense Fund, air pollution can be eight times worse on one end of a block than another. The group learned this by driving cars equipped with small air quality monitors around Oakland, London, and Houston. A separate study of school buses found that pollution levels inside were sometimes worse than they were outside. “Air pollution behaves differently than you’d expect,” says Aileen Nowlan, who led the EDF’s research.

Smoke and mirrors?

During lasts year’s wildfires, Californians started snapping up these new air quality monitors to assess if the actions they were taking to reduce particle levels—such as shutting windows and running air filters—were adequate. “It’s a powerful way to see how effective your actions are,”says Brett Singer, a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. “We’re big fans.”

In some cases, the low-cost devices can be nearly as good as professional grade monitors that cost $15,000 to $20,000, says Singer. In other cases, they’re less reliable or accurate than regulatory tools. To ensure proper measurements, he recommends comparing the inexpensive monitors to a regulatory monitoring station, if there’s one located nearby.

The current fires burning in California have prompted sales to double this month at Atmotube, a San Francisco startup that launched last year on Indigogo and now sells air quality monitors for $99 and $179. Atmotube’s devices connect to users smartphone via Bluetooth to provide users with real-time levels of volatile organic compounds, particulate matters, temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressure.

Atmotube also saw an uptick in orders from Brazil after the World Health Organization issued a health warning last month to the 30 million people who live within the vicinity of the 6,442 fires burning in the state of Rondônia. Toxic smoke clouds drifted as far as 1,800 miles to São Paulo and to the tropical city of Porto Velho, and patients have been flooding into health centers with breathing problems.

“It’s sad to say we see demand during wildfire season,” says Daria Chagina, Atmotube’s chief marketing officer. “We’re seeing an awakening where people are finally taking into consideration the impact of inhaling air pollution and how they can take personal control.”

The new pollution

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. But where there’s none, there can still be particulate matter (PM), an air pollutant that’s becoming increasingly more common. Much of the concern over PM revolves around tiny particles and droplets that come from vehicle emissions, heating oil, wood, and coal. On hot days or times when there is little wind, exposure to these particles can irritate the nose, throat, and lungs. It specifically impacts people who suffer from asthma, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and heart disease.

PM isn’t simply a buzzword that’s picking up traction; it’s a health-endangering pollution trend that’s getting worse. In the last decade, studies have linked long-term exposure to PM and premature death—mostly aggravated by cardiovascular disease. The World Health Organization estimates that about 3.7 million people die annually from health conditions worsened by outdoor pollution, including aggravated ischemic heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, and acute lower respiratory infections in children.

In the U.S. from 2015 to 2017, more cities had days of high ozone and short-term particle pollution compared to 2014 to 2016, according to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air Report. This year the E.U. went so far as to take legal action against a number of countries, including the U.K. and Germany, for surpassing pollution limits. Currently, China’s air quality is so bad that some international companies offer extra compensation to employees who are sent to work in the country

Makers of personal air quality monitors say the hope is that by better understanding the dangers of PM exposure, people will make changes to their life that will protect their health. That could mean making small changes like altering their commute to work or the route they take while running outdoors. But it could also mean pushing for even bigger changes in their communities.

In London, for example, King’s College used data from air quality monitors put on school children’s backpacks to determine that kids were exposed to five times more nitrogen dioxide on their commute than when they were at school. London parents also used devices to measure pollution, pressuring administrators to enforce no-idle zones in pick up and drop-off lanes and form walking buses, in which children walk to school along a specific route that avoids auto exhaust.

People can also use these devices to see a bigger-picture shift in local or national air quality, by uploading their real-time measurements to crowdsourced sites like the PurpleAir Network and AirVisual. These apps let people automatically upload their data and get real-time mapping of air quality in their area and around the world. And as more people voluntarily share their data online, the clearer the map of the pollution will get, says Singer.

During last year’s California wildfires, the PurpleAir Network saw 100 times more traffic to the site. “People use it like a weather report, figuring out where they’ll take their kids to play, where they’ll go to hike or cycle,” says Adrian Dybwad, PurpleAir founder.

This promise of empowering individuals with information is what initially inspired Plume Labs CEO Romain Lacombe to develop his company’s air quality monitor, Flow.

For example, Lacombe points out that air quality monitors assisted residents in their campaign to press the city of Toulon in South France to electrify a busy shipping port, which people had long suspected contributed to air pollution. Earlier this year, citizens gathered air quality data and brought the results to the media. The move brought more exposure to their effort, which ultimately cleaned up the air at the port. “This lets people come to the table with evidence that can drive change,” says Lacombe.

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