Monday, July 14, 2014

Micro-monitors to warn of air pollution hot spots

Small air quality monitors can provide valuable information
about local air pollution levels to citizens and the public.
Louisville is planning to monitor air pollution on a micro-level, potentially shedding light on city "hot spots" that could be damaging people's health.

Using new technology tied to the Internet, Louisville philanthropist Christy Brown is helping to deploy a fleet of micro-monitors about as big as a softball that will continuously sniff the air and provide individuals — as well as the public — a quick view of the pollution surrounding them.

Brown announced the program to deploy the first 100 so-called Air Quality Eggs at a cocktail supper for 200 guests at her northeast Louisville home. They will monitor for nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, particulates, temperature and humidity.

The goal, Brown said, is to "find a new way to care for each other." And Mayor Greg Fischer, who frequently speaks about the need for compassion and innovation, is endorsing the effort.

"We are living in an extraordinary time ... with all these new tools we have not had available before," he told those at Thursday's event. "You may not understand this egg thing, but go ahead and become a civic entrepreneur."

While not as reliable as government sensors, the readings do give people an approximate idea of pollution levels immediately nearby, so they can be more informed in seeking better air quality, said Dirk Swart, a co-founder of the company that makes the monitors, Wicked Device LLC of Ithaca, N.Y.

"The goal is to make information actionable," by making it immediate and personal, he said.

Ted Smith, the mayor's innovation czar, said that the party's participants purchased as many as 100 of the monitors. When bought from Brown's new nonprofit Institute for Healthy Air, Water and Soil, each monitor costs $200 a piece. That's less than the $243 that the company charges for the same package on its Wicked Device website.

Smith said people can donate the eggs so a project team can place them in strategic locations. That way they can search for potential pollution hot spots that may be missed by the Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District's network of six monitoring stations, he said.

"The best possible outcome is a closer connection between health and well-being and our environment," he said.

For those who want to track more pollutants, they may purchase an egg directly from the Wicked Device website, adding packages that detect ozone and volatile organic compounds, which contribute to smog.

All the data will be sent automatically to the Air Quality Egg website, as well as a special website being developed for Louisville, which will include other information such as the location where people who are participating in a related project are having asthma attacks.

The special Louisville website will also compare Egg readings to an index, giving people a sense of what the data means, Smith said.

Accuracy uncertain

The Air Quality Egg was launched in 2012, part of what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls the next generation of air monitoring. There are also businesses that have developed small monitors that connect to smart phone applications, providing instant readings of what their users are breathing.

"In the last two years, we have seen an explosion around these technologies," said Ron Williams, a research chemist with the EPA's Office of Research and Development.

He said EPA has been conducting laboratory and field tests to determine how accurate the personal monitors are, and said "that has yet to be determined. It's certainly not regulatory grade."

Without commenting specifically on the Air Quality Egg, he said "most of these devices have value for low-cost citizen science."

Swart acknowledged that their data can't match the quality of official government monitors.

"We are not trying to be the EPA," he said.

Similar community initiatives are underway with the Air Quality Egg in Boston and the country of Georgia, he said.

Arnita Gadson, executive director of the Kentucky Environmental Quality Commission, said officials working on new air-monitoring initiative will have to be careful about how they communicate with the public, because there are many types of air pollution, and the personal monitors only track a few.

In addition to Louisville's six official monitoring stations, Indiana and Kentucky run several others in the region that are used to determine the community's compliance with federal clean-air rules.

They sample for a variety of pollutants, such as ozone and the smallest of particulates, and have shown that in recent decades, air quality locally has improved.

While those monitors are meant to characterize air quality across a region, air pollution can be different from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Search for hot spots

That's where the micro-level reporting may be especially helpful — helping to identify potential hot spots and their sources.

In general, people who live in more polluted cities don't live as long, said Aruni Bhatnagar, a professor of medicine at University of Louisville.

And there can also be places in cities where air quality is worse, he said, calling them hot spots where air pollution can also damage people's bodies and make them sick.

The effort harkens back more than a decade when Louisville was gripped in a fight over toxic air from industrial sites.

Smith said he plans to seek advice from the Louisville air district and and its health department on where to place the air monitors that people donate.

Air district staff are willing to do that, said Keith Talley Sr., executive director of the agency.

He said it's too soon to evaluate the citizen monitoring program but said it "could point out some stuff we need to look at."

The biggest impact, he said, may be "the community awareness it will bring."

Source: The Courier-Journal
This article has been edited for length.

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