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Air Quality

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Outdoor air pollution, in the most extreme cases, can be immediately identified even without any special training. It casts a haze over cities, collects on streets and buildings, and provides dramatic fodder for the news. But while high drama is often a prerequisite for news about air quality to be reported, the real story is the health impacts that occur even when the air isn't thick enough to see.

What is air pollution and who’s affected by it?

Some common outdoor air pollutants are largely invisible gases, such as ground-level ozone, nitrogen dioxide, and volatile organic compounds. Other pollutants, such as particulate matter, are made up of solid particles and liquid droplets mixing in the air. Several pollutants can combine to make more familiar and obvious forms of air pollution, like smog. The sources of air pollution are varied, ranging from motor vehicle exhaust to wildfires to petrochemical plants. And the presence of pollutants in the air changes over space and time.

Unhealthy air has the potential to affect anyone, but people who live and work closest to major sources of air pollution experience the most severe health impacts. Outdoor air pollution and its effects on the human body cause over 4 million deaths a year worldwide [1], with fine particulate matter alone leading to more than 3.2 million premature deaths [2]. In October 2013, the World Health Organization announced they are considering particulate matter, a major component of both outdoor and indoor air pollution, as a Group 1 carcinogen along with tobacco smoke and asbestos.

This page is a place to collect and organize resources on investigating air pollution. Visit the air quality tag page to see the latest community posts about air quality on Public Lab, and get updates on this topic by subscribing:

Subscribe to air quality

Sources: [1] WHO resources on ambient air pollution. [2] Brauer et al. 2012.

Lead image from @eustatic's work

On this page you can:
See community stories and projects on air quality

Join the conversation
  • Ask a question, answer a question, or follow future questions on air quality
  • Post an issue brief that describes your local concern related to air quality
Research air quality Learn about regulations, policies, and advocacy related to air quality

Find further reading and resources on air quality

See what’s still unknown and next step challenges in air quality monitoring

Community stories and projects

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Image: @mollydanielsson

How have different communities approached their local air quality concerns?

Air quality projects

Public Lab community projects tagged with air-quality-projects will appear here

Title Updated Version Views Likes
The Sand Sentinel Program 8 months ago by stevie 24 3,088 2
Bucket Monitor about 1 year ago by kgradow1 2 200 0
Orangetown Aluf almost 2 years ago by stevie 5 267 1


Particle sensor projects

Public Lab has initiated a Particle Sensing Project focused primarily on silica. This project overlaps with and includes the DustDuino and is coordinated on the Air-Quality Google Group.

A variety of particle sensors have been posted on the site:

Title Updated Version Views Likes
DustDuino 11 months ago by bhamster 27 6,135 7
Simple Air Sensor 12 months ago by a1ahna 47 2,357 6
PurpleAir over 1 year ago by joyofsoy 16 8,155 2



More community projects and stories

  • Remembering Tonawanda: Public Lab blog post by @kgradow1 and @jjcreedon on the incredible organizing and community science for cleaner air in Tonawanda, New York.
  • South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA): on this page, you’ll find videos of Desmond D'sa describing how SDCEA’s community organizing around bucket air monitors gave rise to new air quality legislation in South Africa.
  • Community Observation Networks for Air (CONA): out of New Zealand, @guolivar is building and using lower-cost air sensors to monitor local air quality and engage communities in air quality research.
  • Modeling Environmental Health Impacts of I-10 to Engage Residents and Decision Makers: out of New Orleans, Louisiana, this project with the Thriving Earth Exchange included air monitoring with low-cost sensors to connect environmental data and health impacts near the high-traffic I-10 corridor.
  • Breathe Project: brings together people who work on and are impacted by air pollution to research and map air quality in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, and beyond.
  • Imperial IVAN: out of Imperial Valley, California, this community-based monitoring network and its successful organizing were the model for state legislation aiming to reduce air pollution in the most impacted communities.

Latest community stories


Join the conversation

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Image: @mollydanielsson

Questions from the community

  • See if other community members are asking questions like yours
  • Ask a question so other community members can offer support
  • Sign up below to be notified when someone asks an air quality question

Title Author Updated Likes Comments
What are some of the first things you do with air quality monitoring data to better understand it? @bhamster 3 days ago 4
What are ways to monitor for ethylene oxide? @stevie 2 months ago 1
What are air quality indicators you should watch for around a landfill that indicate you should take a grab sample? @stevie 2 months ago 3
Is there a correlation between humidity and particulates in the air? @sarasage 3 months ago 3
How to connect an anemometer to an air particulate monitor? @crispinpierce 3 months ago 0
How subsurface gasses migrate and what allows them to dissipate? Landfill gasses @denissebn_06 4 months ago 5
HOW do i find testing for air quality in my home - specifically for silica? @MaryBandy 9 months ago 4
What are some affordable methods of air quality monitoring in New Orleans? @purl 9 months ago 5
Chevron is up for a permit renewal again (under title 5 of the Clean Air Act), we have a 4800 page report on the company, how can we get through it and pull out the valuable info? @stevie 10 months ago 24
What are your experiences using low-cost VOC sensors outdoors? And other questions about accuracy. @bhamster 11 months ago 5
Can a successful heavy metal analysis using moss samples be designed for community partners? @stevie about 1 year ago 3
For the Bucket Monitor, how many tedlar bags do you need per-sampling? @mimiss about 1 year ago 5
What causes shimmering air above flares? @kgradow1 over 1 year ago 5
Where is non-compliance reported for fencline monitoring? @A_SCH over 1 year ago 2
How accurate is data on WebFire? @ajg434 over 1 year ago 3
How do you account for wind in an air study? @kgradow1 over 1 year ago 2
Updated list of EPA TO methods? @kgradow1 over 1 year ago 1
What are ways to monitor for oil and gas spills on private property? @stevie over 1 year ago 3
T and RH compensation for PM measurements? @subir over 1 year ago 3
Can we add a 2um filter to the bucket monitor to capture particulates? @kgradow1 over 1 year ago 4
Have you used the bucket air sampler or other grab sample tool? @kgradow1 over 1 year ago 13
Which NO2 Sensor for low-concentration measurement? @Alex_Solaga over 1 year ago 4
MiniVol for gas sensing? @kgradow1 over 1 year ago 2
Is the Purple Air sensor an EPA-validated tool? @kgradow1 over 1 year ago 4
Show more

Ask a question  or help answer future questions on this topic


Post an Issue Brief

Share a local concern or issue about air quality and get support from the Public Lab community by writing and posting an Issue Brief. Visit “Write an Issue Brief” to find information on what an issue brief is, see examples, and learn how to write one.



Research air quality

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Image: @mollydanielsson

Planning and carrying out a community air quality study can seem daunting. Be reassured that many other community groups have planned and done air quality studies, and that the Public Lab community is here to support you. At any time, you can ask questions, start an issue brief with any amount of information you have, or start documenting your project, and gather input from other Public Lab members.


Getting ready

Here are some resources that might help you get started with a community air monitoring project.

Posts about gathering with community




See how other communities have investigated their local air

Many community groups have studied local air quality in their neighborhoods and shared their extensive knowledge and experiences in publicly-available written guides. @kgradow1 has compiled a handy short list of community air guides here, and explained the advantages and limitations of each guide. Much of the more general guidance on this page was collected from these community air guides.

A particularly comprehensive how-to guide is the Guidebook for Developing a Community Air Monitoring Network: Steps, Lessons, and Recommendations from the Imperial County Community Air Monitoring Project. It covers community engagement, choosing tools and software, determining monitoring sites, and analyzing data.


Deciding what to monitor

What pollutants might be in the air near you?

Considering common sources of air pollutants can help you determine which pollutants might be in your community.

General sources: the buttons below list some examples of human activities, industries, and natural sources. Click the buttons to see common air pollutants these sources use or produce.

Oil and gas production, refining, storage; oil- and coal-fired power plants
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs); “BTEX” VOCs benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene, especially associated with natural gas; formaldehyde associated with natural gas compressor stations
  • Methane
  • Sulfur compounds
  • Nitrogen oxides (NOx)
  • Particulate matter (PM)
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)

Chemical manufacturing, commercial manufacturing, petrochemical plants
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), especially ethylene oxide, benzene, formaldehyde
  • Nitrogen oxides (NOx)
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)

  • Dust / particulate matter
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)

Exhaust from gas-powered motor vehicles; municipal waste sites
  • Particulate matter
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), especially ethylene, propylene, and acetylene
  • Nitrogen oxides
  • Sulfur dioxide
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Methane

  • Ammonia
  • Hydrogen sulfide
  • Nitrogen oxides

  • Wildfires: fine particulate matter (PM2.5)
  • Volcanic activity: sulfur dioxide and particulate matter, making volcanic smog (“vog”)


Sources near you: the activities listed below can help you learn about searching public databases to find out what industries and emissions sources are near you.



After you narrow down your pollutants of interest, you can read more about them and the range of methods to investigate the pollution below in the "Air pollutants and monitoring methods" section.

How can air pollutants impact your health?

You might choose a specific pollutant to monitor because you know it’s in your local air and you’re experiencing health impacts.

ToxFAQs by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) in the US contains a large alphabetical list of compounds, how you might be exposed to each, and their potential health impacts.

Toxic City: Health Impacts of Chemicals Emitted in the South Durban Area: this guide by the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) refers to specific companies in the South Durban area of South Africa, but the industry types, emissions, and health impacts can be applicable to anywhere.

If there aren’t specific pollutants you’re looking for and you’re more interested in detecting what’s in the air, you can do broad spectrum sampling.

What are your study goals?

Determining what you ultimately want to do with air quality data will help guide the approach you take and what kind of data will best answer your questions.

Some example goals:

  • Create community awareness of an air quality issue
  • Identify pollution hotspots for more monitoring
  • Share information on an air quality issue with media
  • Submit data to a regulatory agency

In general, using data for regulatory or legal purposes will require certain methods to collect the data and meeting set data quality standards.

Posts about planning an environmental study


Air pollutants and monitoring methods

Based on your initial observations and research on what sources of air pollution are near you, you have an idea of which air pollutants you want to investigate. What methods are available to study them?

You might be able to use existing public databases to meet your study goals, or you might decide to collect your own air monitoring data. Below are resources for gathering your own data on air quality.

Overview of common approaches

odor log
ODOR LOGGING

Image from Odor Log 1.0

smoke school
VISUAL MONITORING

Image from Smoke School

dust sensor
SENSORS
  • Detect pollutants continuously, outputs in real-time
  • Various ways to detect different pollutants: metal oxide sensors, electrochemical, light-scattering/optical
  • Some sensors can detect both gases and particulate matter, others have more specificity
  • Trade-offs with real-time monitoring and data collected
  • Recent posts on air sensors

Image from @warren

grab sampler
SAMPLING

Image from @kgradow1



For another way to view different air monitoring approaches, check out the box entitled, “What other kinds of community air monitoring are there?” on pg. 12 of the Guidebook for Developing a Community Air Monitoring Network. It outlines different approaches that vary in mobility and timeframes, including fenceline monitoring, grab sampling, personal monitoring, and mobile monitoring.

Gases

Air polluting gases and monitoring methods: on this wiki page we describe some main approaches to monitor gas-phase air pollutants, and then list common outdoor gaseous pollutants (e.g., volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides, ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen sulfide) and examples of tools to detect and measure them. Visit and edit the page to help grow this resource!

bucket monitor

One of the tools listed for sampling gas-phase air pollutants that has a storied history in community campaigns is the Bucket Monitor. On the linked wiki page, you’ll find information on how people have been using the bucket monitor to advocate for change, plus updated resources on building and using a bucket monitor. You can also find a kit to build your own bucket monitor in the Public Lab store.

Particulate matter (PM)

Introduction to Particulate Matter: find community questions and research notes about particulate matter, plus a deep dive into different kinds and sizes of PM.

Collecting data on particulate matter: kicks off with key resources on strategizing your monitoring efforts to match with your community goals, then describes different monitoring methods including regulatory methods and Smoke School for communities.

Choosing a method for Particulate Matter Monitoring: goes deeper into different PM monitoring approaches (visual, filter-based, optical, passive) to help you choose the method right for you. For each approach, it describes advantages and disadvantages, when it might be useful, and example tools.

simple air sensorsimple air sensor lights

One of the more accessible tools for monitoring PM that also helps you understand how some sensors work is the Simple Air Sensor. Developed by Public Lab, it’s an open-source, optical sensor-based tool that signals changing PM levels in your air with a colored LED light.

Tools for mapping and viewing data

Air quality subtopics

A collection of wiki pages on monitoring methods and approaches covering particulate matter and gases

Title Updated Version Views Likes
Air Sensors 11 months ago by bhamster 12 912 1
Introduction to Particulate Matter about 1 year ago by stevie 91 4,260 6
Odor Logging over 1 year ago by bhamster 33 1,070 3
Optical Monitoring of Particulate Matter over 1 year ago by stevie 24 4,630 4
Hydrogen Sulfide about 2 years ago by warren 38 1,177 2
Filters over 2 years ago by warren 11 331 2
PM Tools about 3 years ago by warren 3 172 0


Activities

Activities on Public Lab that have been tagged with air-quality will appear here

Purpose Category Status Author Time Difficulty Replications
Learning to Spot Lichens and Mosses observe - @fongvania 1h easy 0 replications: Try it »
Solar Powered Air Quality Sensor - - @nicholas - - 0 replications: Try it »
Inexpensive HEPA Filter Fan project to reduce air pollution - - @Melissa - - 0 replications: Try it »
How to Build a Bucket Air Monitor - - @kgradow1 - - 1 replications: Try it »
Comparing air quality databases: a fun activity - - @bhamster - - 0 replications: Try it »
How to host a community meeting - - @kgradow1 - - 0 replications: Try it »
Smells that Kill: How to Identify Odours - - @kgradow1 - - 0 replications: Try it »
Compare environmental test results to health standards - - @kgradow1 - - 0 replications: Try it »
How to read an Environmental Impact Statement - - @kgradow1 - - 0 replications: Try it »
Bucket Monitor Build: VVAMP - - @sarasage - - 0 replications: Try it »
How to read a Permit Application - - @kgradow1 - - 0 replications: Try it »
How to read Environmental Test Results - - @kgradow1 - - 0 replications: Try it »
How do we get relevant PM data to residents in under 10 minutes? - - @eustatic - - 0 replications: Try it »
Show more

Add an activity  or request an activity guide you don't see listed

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



Regulations, policy, and advocacy

US Environmental Protection Agency standards and regulations

National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS)

What are the standards?

Section 109 of the Clean Air Act directs the EPA to establish National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) requisite to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety (primary standard) and for the protection of public welfare (secondary standard).

The standards are for six common pollutants, referred to as criteria air pollutants: ground-level ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and lead.

Section 109(d)(1) of the Clean Air Act requires EPA to complete a thorough review of the NAAQS at 5-year intervals and enact new standards when appropriate.

The standard levels are listed in the summary table below and can also be found here.

EPANAAQS.gif


How are the air quality standards enforced?

States and tribes use air monitoring data and models on the criteria pollutants to evaluate whether they meet the NAAQs. They send their evaluation information to the EPA, which then designates an area as attainment or nonattainment for the pollutant standard. Nonattainment areas must create and carry out a plan for attaining standards by reducing emissions.

Complete details of the standards, measurement principles, and data interpretation, can be found in Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations Part 50.

EPA Test Methods

EPA approved instruments are designated as either a Federal Reference Method (FRM) or Federal Equivalent Methods (FEM). The complete list of approved instruments for evaluating NAAQS is provided on the EPA Ambient Monitoring Technology Information Center (AMTIC) website.

Hazardous air pollutants / air toxics

In addition to the six criteria air pollutants, the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to regulate 187 hazardous air pollutants (also known as air toxics). These pollutants can cause serious health effects, such as cancer, even at low levels.

State and local regulations

Community Air Protection Program - California AB 617: addressing inequities in air quality and monitoring, California is implementing the Community Air Protection Program to “...reduce exposure in communities most impacted by air pollution.”

  • The impacts of this 2017 bill are yet to be seen--let’s update here as they become apparent
  • Potential pros: puts more air quality monitoring at the local level; aims to connect air quality to health outcomes and remediation efforts
  • Questions and potential challenges: will limited funding and capacity make communities compete with one another for resources? How exactly will polluting facilities be held accountable?

Example Air Pollution Regulations in Wisconsin

VIOLATIONS RELEVANT PROVISION
Air pollution which is defined as the presence of smoke, dust, gases, fumes in the air. The presence of these substances must also lead to injury on humans, animals or plants as well as interfere with the enjoyment of life or one's property. NR 400.02
Fugitive dust. This refers to the presence in the air of dust from sources such as open fields and piles. There will be a violation on air quality when during handling, transporting and storing of materials, the people undertaking these activities do not take precaution and some of these materials end up being released into the air. NR 415.04
Causing, allowing or permitting solid or liquid hazardous substances into the air. This includes dust, soot, pollen, smoke and liquid droplets. One can spot that violation by simply observing the ambient air. NR. 415.05
Industrial sand mines that do not take precautions to ensure dust does not escape into the air. NR 415.075


International regulations

Other resources for air quality standards

  • The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) and its National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) also offer a wealth of guidance. In particular, the NIOSH Manual of Analytical Methods is a collection of procedures for sampling and analysis of contaminants including workplace air.
  • The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), based in Atlanta, Georgia, is a federal public health agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Their Toxicological Profiles are particularly useful for when a pollutant can be identified by compound or element.
  • Correlating environmental monitoring with health monitoring: the article, “New Voices, New Approaches: Drowning in Data,” by Gwen Ottinger and Rachel Zurer outlines some of the limitations with relying on air quality standards alone.


Community posts and pages on air quality regulations


Advocacy

New_project.png

Image: @mollydanielsson

How can we use air monitoring data, either gathered from public databases or collected ourselves, to advocate for healthier air? To fill in information gaps left by regulatory agencies?

In the Community stories and projects section above, you’ll find examples of how community groups have advocated for changes to air quality policy.

In general, how can people take action with community-sourced air quality data?

  • Not all communities can or need to collect air quality data comparable to regulatory monitor data.
  • Citizen Science Programs at Environmental Agencies: Best Practices - this guide from the Environmental Law Institute suggests practices to ensure that community-sourced data can be used effectively for a range of purposes. For example:

    "Data used for policy or enforcement decisions must be highly accurate, whereas data that is used for screening or exposure may be moderately reliable since these assessments will be investigated further by the agency.”

  • This table from the EPA’s Air Sensor Guidebook matches different kinds of monitoring goals with some suggested goals for how precise and complete the air monitoring data should aim to be.

  • Citizen Science Programs at Environmental Agencies: Case Studies - this partner guide to the “Best Practices” guide above from the Environmental Law Institute offers case studies of successful community science and government partnerships. Air quality case studies start on pg. 5.

Community posts about general advocacy pathways


Further reading and resources

Real Time Data

EPA and its State and Tribal partners publish near real-time air quality data (typically hourly updates) as well air quality forecasts on the AirNow web site.

The AirNow site also contains, links to Air Quality Webcams, which are yet another way to evaluate air pollution.

Examples of clear and hazy days from Boston HazeCam:

boston.jpg

Historical Data

Historical air quality test results are freely available through EPA AirData

Wikis

All wiki pages related to air quality

Title Updated Version Views Likes
Urban Environment and Social Inclusion Index 4 days ago by julia_e_masters 1 7 0
VVAMP 21 days ago by denissebn_06 34 312 5
Air-polluting gases and monitoring methods 3 months ago by fongvania 4 51 1
Air sample lab testing 5 months ago by bhamster 3 237 2


Next step challenges

  • Step-by-step guides on how to use existing databases to find out what air emissions and polluting facilities are nearby in a community.
  • Clear steps on how to use and find patterns in raw air quality data, including publicly-accessible existing data or data measured by community scientists.
  • Improving accuracy in lower-cost sensors for VOCs and air toxics.
    • Testing the accuracy of currently available low-cost VOC sensors.
  • Encouraging government agencies to act on low-cost sensor data: e.g., defined pathways for community scientists to influence decision-making that isn’t limited to collecting research-grade data.