Breathing Easy — Scientists Praise a Grassroots Movement as Air Quality Sensors Arrive At Our Doorstep

Spurred by wildfires, climate change, and the Internet of Things, a citizen science movement takes root as thousands of low-cost air quality sensors are installed in homes and backyards around the world —and scientists are starting to take it seriously

A low-cost air sensor launches a citizen science movement — Inexpensive, easy to install, and able to share data via Internet Wi-Fi, the PurpleAir sensor has gained over 10,000 installations worldwide in just the past five years. Scientists and air quality experts are praising this movement as a success, citing how these sensors help build a more complete picture of air quality as they reach into under-served locations like schools, tribal land, recreation areas and parks. Image by PurpleAir
Easy Air Sensor Installation — A typical PurpleAir installation brings accurate air-quality sensors to more locations, with placement indoors or outdoors. With their low cost and ease of use, these sensors are finding their way into more locations, especially those under-represented by official air quality monitoring, including inner-city schools, refineries, mines, parks and tribal areas. Image from Coalition for Clean Air.
Citizen Scientist — Mike Hekkers, a resident of Juneau, Alaska, is shown standing next to his PurpleAir sensor installed at his home in 2019. The City and Borough of Juneau, along with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, have launched a project to recruit volunteers to help monitor air quality near Juneau’s busy cruise ship terminal. The project has installed a network of PurpleAir sensors around Juneau, a city with population around 32,300. And officials intend to gather much-needed data to determine the extent, sources and precise location of air pollution in Juneau. Image source: Juneau Empire.
Air Pollution is Measured in Microns —PurpleAir sensors measure airborne particulate matter in billionths of a meter, particles so small they are 9-36 times smaller than a grain of beach sand, or 5-20 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Particulate matter can become especially harmful to human health when it interacts with chemicals and sunlight in the atmosphere. Image source: EPA
Accuracy Put to the Test during Wildfires — In a recent study, scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory compared PurpleAir sensors with top-of-the-line air quality monitoring equipment during times of wildfires when levels of particulate matter are especially high. As particulate matter went up, the sensors correlated positively with their readings, leading air quality experts to conclude the low-cost sensors performed reliably well. Image source: Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.
More Sensors, More Data, More Websites — As recent wildfires raged across the West, a vastly more detailed picture of air quality emerged. PurpleAir sensors collect standardized data that can be shared via internet Wi-Fi and the data can be displaced on a variety of websites using the official Air Quality Index (AQI). This promotes greater access for government officials, scientists and the public.— Screenshot from September 11, 2020, from the PurpleAir website.

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