Low-cost portable air quality sensors may help provide answers
Attendees at SCAQMD’s workshop, “My Air Quality,” viewed numerous displays by vendors, agencies and organizations on the use of portable air monitoring equipment.
For decades, the South Coast Air Quality Management District has monitored regional air quality in the Southland at nearly three dozen permanent monitoring stations. Long-term trends show that in spite of a growing economy and population, regional air quality has improved dramatically.
However, studies by AQMD and other scientific agencies have shown that residents who live, work or play close to major sources of air pollution — including freeways, busy roadways, large industrial facilities, rail yards and the ports — may breathe higher levels of localized air pollution.
For example, certain air pollutants are found in much higher concentrations next to freeways and busy roadways. Studies have shown that people living close to them may suffer a wide range of heart and lung problems due to the higher pollution levels.
“These studies have prompted many residents to ask about the air quality in their neighborhood, at their children’s school or the local park or sports field where their children play,” said Barry Wallerstein, AQMD’s executive officer. “A new generation of portable, low-cost air quality sensors may be able to provide more information on residents’ exposure to local air pollution sources.”
Advances in sensor technology, microprocessors and internet connectivity now make it possible for someone to mount an air quality monitor — costing a few hundred dollars or less — on a bicycle and use a smart phone to stream air quality data to the web as they ride around their neighborhood or other area of interest.
The development and proliferation of such sensors may offer a revolution in air quality information. But there is a catch.
“There are no performance standards or testing centers to validate their accuracy,” Wallerstein said. “Preliminary tests have shown that many of them are unreliable, perform poorly outdoors and produce measurements that have little or no correlation to scientifically validated air quality data.”
To address the promises and pitfalls of these new devices, AQMD recently co-sponsored “My Air Quality: Using Sensors to Know What’s in Your Air,” a workshop attended by more than 150 air quality regulators, business representatives, members of academia and environmental groups. The California Air Pollution Control Officers Association also co-sponsored the event.
In addition, earlier this year AQMD approved funding for the nation’s first comprehensive evaluation center to test commercially available, low-cost air quality sensors.
AQMD’s Board approved $852,000 to fund the creation and first year of operation of the Air Quality Sensor Performance Evaluation Center (AQ-SPEC), which will be located at AQMD headquarters in Diamond Bar. The agency also will pursue funding opportunities to sustain the center in future years.
AQMD plans to purchase the air quality sensors and begin field and laboratory testing of them this year. A dedicated website is expected to be launched early next year and will include testing results and some guidelines for use of the new technology.
For decades, permanent air monitoring stations have set the gold standard to gauge levels of outdoor air pollution. Such stations still are essential to protecting public health, and anyone can tap into this network and check real-time air quality levels in their area at www.aqmd.gov.
A fully equipped permanent air monitoring site can cost $150,000 or more, so it’s not feasible to put them in every community. The new generation of low-cost, portable monitors may be able to supplement existing air quality data by providing readings at many more locations than existing fixed sites.
“This new center will help evaluate these devices, which if proven reliable could empower residents to test and provide valuable information on air quality in their communities,” Wallerstein said.
To learn more about what AQMD is doing to clean the air that we all breathe and protect public health from the impacts of air pollution, visit the agency’s website at www.aqmd.gov.