Air Pollution – Citizen Science to understand it

July 12, 2022

Availability of air pollution data is not as transparent as most of us think. Some governments are lagging in their efforts to cut down on air pollution and are keeping quiet about it. Yet, citizen science and grassroots projects can help ordinary people make informed decisions.

Understanding air pollution

Pollution, as we have noticed here before, is a complex problem that can’t be easily attributed to one single source. This means that it will not be solved by just finding one brilliant fix that will fit all sizes. In order for us to have a glimmer of hope to ever reduce contamination to manageable levels, we need to think as if we were trying to solve a puzzle. One does not go about solving puzzles using just one approach: multiple forms of intelligences (Spatial, logical, color, mathematical, etc.) are needed to find the right pieces or combination of moves. This, of course, is reduced to information. Data that is processed, reasoned and applied to get to the objective: solving the puzzle. Or, in our case, air pollution. 

But without data there is no way to find solutions to our problem. Governments around the world have pledged to reduce emissions of pollutants, cut down on waste and improve industrial and agricultural practices, but sometimes it just feels like words. More importantly, pollution is a problem for all of us, which means that all of us should be doing something, as little as it might be, towards the end goal of a healthier, cleaner world

air pollution

Air pollution in the UK

People have the right to know what the data says, and we can be sure we have a worrying situation when ruling bodies are not providing it as they should. That is exactly what is happening in the UK, as the National Audit Office (NAO) has accused the government of not properly informing the public about the solutions that are being applied to curb down air pollution. Not only that, NAO has also pointed out that it will be impossible for the government to be on time to meet the air quality targets set for 2030. In other words, while the people are kept slightly in the dark regarding air pollution problems in their areas, the optimistic promises set for just seven years into the future will be left as just that: simple promises. 

This wouldn’t be happening in a fair world, of course, but we tend to forget that ours isn’t fair at all. Governments are complex, and air pollution is not the only issue they have to deal with, yet one would hope that they were at least a little more committed to the cause. Many times, governments just pay lip service to both the citizens and the environmental watchdogs keeping track of their moves. Other times, it is just a case of incompetence coming from the highest places. How can we expect to play our part in fixing our share of air pollution if our elected officials are not up to par? 

Citizen science can democratise important information

One of science’s basic principles is the free access to information, and the beauty of the scientific method is that one does not need a middle manager to practice it. Technology has advanced to such a degree that these days anyone, with a little knowledge in engineering and a bit of creativity, can set up a small observation station to track down the air quality of our living areas, the pollution of our rivers, or the deterioration of our soil. Even better: the data obtained through citizen science projects can be used, either by private agencies or government bodies, to improve policies regarding pollution.  

That is what happened some years ago, when residents of Tonawanda, a town in New York, observed a clear connection between the air quality and their own health problems. They came together and created the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, made up of volunteers who used simple sensors to collect air samples for analysis. Unsurprisingly, they discovered large concentrations of benzene, which can lead to the development of cancer. This grassroots initiative was professional enough to convince the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, together with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to do more studies on regional air qualityThis lead to the Tonawanda Coke Corporation agreeing to improve their operations and work methods, which lead to a reduction of 86% in ambient benzine. 

What this shows us, is that the work done by citizens can be strong enough to change corporate and industrial practices. Clean Air Coalition of Western New York was created from the ground up by concerned people with no ties to the government or scientific organizations, but citizen science can also be done with the help of agencies that can provide needed support and guidance. For example, back in 2015, the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), led a study to understand the dangerous concentrations of indoors and outdoors Particulate Matter, such as PM 2.5, in the settlement of Mukuru, in Nairobi. The project tasked citizens to use personal monitors and sensors to keep tabs on the these pollutants and compile data that would latter be used for further action. The project was so successful, SEI has had two more of its kind done around the same area. 

Citizen mediated change

air pollution

SEI’s, and the people’s, work drew the attention of local policy makers. The data on high concentrations of PM matter in the air led to conversations between important players and members of the community, which was then further extended into formal gatherings that led to the creation the Kenya Air Quality Network, a body intended for research, education and the creation of awareness on the dangers of air pollution and what to do about it. And that’s where the power of citizen science is to be found: in sharing information for the collective good. By doing so, people will have a clearer understanding of what is happening and can make informed decisions about their future actions.  

Citizen science is an effort done through community, but individual persons can also contribute. Chinese designer Huachen Xin has created a small piece of hardware that, if mass produced, could be helpful in understanding the size of an area’s air quality problem. It is called Pollution Ranger and Smog Shade and it can be used to visualise data on the levels of air pollution in a city. 

How does this work?

It works in two parts. First, the Pollution Ranger, an air monitor that is attached to taxis, buses, or any other form of transportation. As the vehicles goe around a given area, the rangers records data about the presence of various pollutants. This data is then relayed to the Smog Shade, a transparent circular screen in an aluminum frame. The screen is made of two layers of polarizing film, and one of them rotates 90 degrees to change between transparency and various degrees of opaqueness. Why? Because based on the data obtained by the Ranger, the screen will turn blacker and blacker the more polluted an area is. This gives people a very visual cue about the levels of pollution in a park, a public square or their neighborhoods, which may then lead to action. Perhaps they could try and coarse authorities to regulate traffic at certain hours, or make a more informed decision about a house somebody wanted to buy in a highly polluted area. 

Similarly to what is happening with the UK, Huachen Xin’ project was a reaction to the Chinese government’s reluctance to make air pollution data freely available to the public. Or even worse, doctoring, as it is known that some of the state air quality monitors are located in areas where air is much cleaner. 

Controlling indoor air pollution with AIR8

The most wonderful thing about citizen science projects aimed at understanding pollution, is that the people can have direct control and understanding of the problem. As the case of Tonawanda proves, once the people have gathered and understood the data, they can then use it to convince authorities to try and do something about it. So even if governments are not good at providing citizens with all the right information, the people themselves can easily access it by generating their own initiatives. 

Of course, these are ideal cases. Governments or private agencies may choose to just ignore the information collected by citizens, and will not budge unless plenty of pressure is applied to them. In the end, it is the big players who decide if they do something about our problems with outdoors air pollution. However, it is us who decide what to do about air pollution indoors. 

We spend 90% of our time inside closed doors. Air pollution in our homes and offices can be just as bad as outside, and we do not need monitors to know it. We can feel it. That is why, at AIR8, we have designed a line of products that guarantee that 99.97% of all pathogens, viruses, pollen and toxic contaminants, like PM 2.5 particles and Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), are easily filtered away. How so? Because we incorporate medical-grade HEPA-13 technology into our filters, which is a guarantee that the air inside your workspace will be as fresh and sanitary as it can possibly be. 

air purifiers

More about AIR8 air purifiers

We work with different industries that demand the cleanest air for their environments. Our products have a filtering range of up to 1399 ft2 and are silent and energy effective. Unlike bulky mechanical systems of ventilation, our filters can easily be moved from one room to another, and will require no obstructive interventions in you building. You will be doing the best thing for yourself and your employees when you get in touch with us. We can all do our small part in improving the quality of air outdoors, but with AIR8 we can definitely fix the quality of our indoors.