Public Lab Wiki documentation

Air-polluting gases and monitoring methods

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Lead image: Jeff Turner, CC BY

What are some common outdoor air-polluting gases and what kinds of tools are available to detect and measure them? On this page, we’re collecting information on gas-phase pollutants, approaches to investigate them, example tools, and pollutant-related posts from the Public Lab community. For a similar overview of particulate matter monitoring, check out this page.

These lists are nowhere near exhaustive, please help them grow by editing this page or adding and answering questions!

You can also follow along and get updates on new resources by subscribing to gas-monitoring.

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Main approaches to monitor gases

  • Odor logging: many air pollutants have a distinctive smell. Learn how to keep an odor log and map bad odor events, and check out other posts on Public Lab about odor.
  • Air sampling: capturing air in a container, for example through whole air sampling (like grab samples) or sorbent tube sampling. Check out @kgradow1’s post to learn the difference between these two sampling approaches. The air sample typically requires lab analysis, which will tell you exactly what compounds are in the air sample and their concentrations (amount per volume of air).
  • Air sensors: detect gases continuously, in real-time. There are many commercially-available sensors for detecting specific gases, and they vary in the way they sense chemicals, their price, sensitivity, and accuracy.
  • Colorimetric strips / badges: a material with a reactive surface changes color when exposed to a gas, with the amount of color-change indicating the relative amount of exposure. Generally lower-cost and easy to use, with the main limitation being less quantitative data.

Common gas-phase air pollutants and example tools

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)

  • What are VOCs? Carbon-based compounds that evaporate easily into gases. VOCs react with nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sunlight to form ozone, another air pollutant.
  • Common VOCs in outdoor air: benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene (BTEX); ethylene oxide; light alkanes.
  • Common sources: oil and gas operations, petrochemical plants (e.g., plastics manufacturing), chemical manufacturing, agricultural activities, motor vehicle exhaust, solvent use.
  • Health impacts: irritation of eyes, nose, or throat; headaches and nausea; damage to organs and central nervous system; some VOCs cause cancer

Example tools to detect VOCs

Air samplers paired with lab analysis currently give more accurate and precise results than commercially available low-cost air sensors for VOCs.

Data from low-cost devices that use metal oxide (MOX) sensors (like the Adafruit CCS811 Air Quality Sensor Breakout, meant for indoor air) or photoionization detector (PID) sensors to detect VOCs might have questionable accuracy. This comment from @cfastie fabulously explains how the CCS811 MOX VOC sensor works, its benefits, and its limitations:

In general, these sensors will allow you to see how VOC is changing over time or in response to events. The absolute values for VOC will not have much meaning (i.e., they won't stand up in court).

Bucket monitor


  • Grab samples
  • With lab analysis, can test for up to 97 VOCs
  • Open source tool with complete build and sampling instructions
  • Community success stories in using the bucket monitor to take action
Summa canister
  • Grab samples or integrated samples
  • With lab analysis, can test for up to 97 VOCs
  • Commercially available, some air testing labs rent them out
Sorbent tube / cartridge samplers
  • Integrated samples
  • Targeted test for specific compounds
  • Wearable/portable device
  • Commercially available
EPA’s Sensor Pod (S-Pod)
  • Photoionization detector (PID) sensor
  • Detects air pollution plumes and total VOC concentration, especially suited for fenceline monitoring
  • Open source
  • Sensor is paired with a canister grab sampler; solar-powered
"Sniffle" beta project - Methane Gas Sensor
  • Datalogging sensor for methane
  • Detects natural gas leaks
  • Combined with a GPS to help map methane readings
  • Open source, by @Bob

Community posts about VOCs

Title Author Created | Updated Likes Views Type
What are your experiences using low-cost VOC sensors outdoors? And other questions about accuracy. @bhamster over 3 years ago 1
Does anyone have experience assembling low-cost VOC kits using Adafruit’s VOC sensor? @stevie over 4 years ago 1
Are there any other professional instruments that measures different VOC besides PID (photoionisation detector)? @stevie over 4 years ago 1
What is the air flow requirement for air sampling tubes? Any inexpensive method? @BostonFern over 4 years ago 1
Air sampling tubes for formaldehyde: which brand is accurate? @BostonFern over 4 years ago 1
Which is more accurate in measuring formaldehyde: air sampling tubes vs RKI FP-30? @BostonFern over 4 years ago 1
Low cost sensor for air quality monitoring @mprof9 over 6 years ago 1
Indoor Air Quality Monitoring & Mitigation @nshapiro almost 9 years ago 48
are there formaldehyde and other VOCs in my apartment @liz about 9 years ago 1
A DIY gas-finding camera? @mathew over 9 years ago 1

Nitrogen oxides (NOx)

  • What are nitrogen oxides? Gases including nitric oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). They react in ambient air to form other pollutants: particulate matter and when sunlight is present, ozone.
  • Common sources: power plants (coal- and oil-fired), industrial facilities, motor vehicle emissions
  • Health impacts: chest irritation and lung damage; exacerbation of asthma symptoms; increased risk of lung cancer; increased sensitivity to allergens

Example tools to detect NOx

This comment by @guolivar offers an excellent summary of a few lower-cost NO2 sensors.

MACA - Open AQ monitor


  • Metal oxide sensor for nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and ozone, plus an optical sensor for particulate matter
  • Open source, Arduino-based monitor by @nanocastro
Smart Citizen Kit 1.1
  • NO2 and CO sensors on version 1.1
  • Open source

Community posts about nitrogen oxides

Sulfur dioxide (SO2)

  • What is sulfur dioxide? As a gas, it smells of burnt matches.
  • Common sources: coal-fired power plants, oil refineries, paper manufacturing, metal ore smelting, emissions from equipment burning high-sulfur fuel, volcanic eruptions.
  • Health impacts: irritation of skin and respiratory system; lung and colon cancers; wheezing, coughing, reduction of lung function

Example tools to detect sulfur dioxide

Alphasense SO2 sensor

Community posts about sulfur dioxide

Ground-level ozone (O3)

  • What is ground-level ozone? A secondary pollutant that’s a major part of smog and forms when volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or carbon monoxide react with nitrogen oxides in the presence of sunlight.
  • Common sources: motor vehicle emissions, industrial facilities
  • Health impacts: shortness of breath, increased risk of developing asthma, asthma attacks, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), increased risk of premature death, cardiovascular harm

Example tools to detect ground-level ozone

MACA - Open AQ monitor


  • Metal oxide sensor for ozone, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen dioxide, plus an optical sensor for particulate matter
  • Open source, Arduino-based monitor by @nanocastro
Ozone sensor (MiCS-2614)
  • Electromechanical ozone sensor
  • A wearable, Arduino-based platform by @filimon_k
  • Electrochemical sensors for ozone, nitrogen dioxide, nitric oxide, carbon monoxide
  • Open source

Community posts about ground-level ozone

Hydrogen sulfide (H2S)

  • What is hydrogen sulfide? A flammable gas with a strong odor of rotten eggs at low concentrations, and weaker odor at high concentrations or after longer exposure to low concentrations. Check out the Public Lab hydrogen sulfide wiki page here to learn more about hydrogen sulfide regulations and DIY detection methods, and see questions from the Public Lab community. Also check out this summary of methods for detecting hydrogen sulfide. A few tools are highlighted below.
  • Common sources: agricultural industry (e.g., concentrated animal feeding operations = CAFOs) crude oil and natural gas production, volcanic emissions
  • Heath impacts: skin, eye, respiratory irritation; convulsions; headaches; unconsciousness; pulmonary edema (a buildup of excess fluid in the lungs)

Example tools to detect hydrogen sulfide

Photographic paper


Copper pipe testing
  • Elemental copper in the pipe reacts with hydrogen sulfide and turns a purple-black color as copper sulfide is produced.
  • Low-cost and accessible method, but has yet to be quantified or validated.
  • Check out more community posts about copper pipe testing here.
Bucket monitor
  • Grab samples
  • Use with lab analysis to measure H2S levels
  • Open source tool with complete build and sampling instructions
  • Community success stories in using the bucket monitor to take action
Hydrogen sulfide sensors
  • Arduino-based platforms using commercially available sensors.

Community posts about hydrogen sulfide



And more research notes and wiki pages from the hydrogen sulfide tag page here:

Carbon monoxide (CO)

  • What is carbon monoxide? A colorless and odorless gas.
  • Common sources: burning fossil fuels, motor vehicle emissions.
  • Health impacts: Respiratory difficulties; fatigue; headaches; nausea; unconsciousness; exposure to high levels of CO is lethal

Example tools to detect carbon monoxide

MACA - Open AQ monitor
  • Metal oxide sensor for nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and ozone, plus an optical sensor for particulate matter
  • Open source, Arduino-based monitor by @nanocastro
Smart Citizen Kit 1.1
  • CO and NO2 sensors on version 1.1
  • Open source
echem328 gas sensor
  • Electrochemical sensor with a smart sensor board
  • Sensors commercially-available, open-source platform by @kensanfran

Community posts about carbon monoxide

Questions about outdoor gas-phase pollutants

Activities about outdoor gas-phase pollutants

Activities should include a materials list, costs and a step-by-step guide to construction with photos. Learn what makes a good activity here.

Further reading and resources

  • Lots of information on low-cost sensors for various air pollutants