In a few years, measuring the air quality outside your house might be as easy as hooking up a sensor to your mobile phone.
The costs of some air quality sensors are falling quickly, giving rise to “citizen monitoring” of the environment. It's a promising prospect for transparency, but some regulators and scientists are wary of the side effects.
Too much low-quality data could harm residents by giving them a false sense of security or have them needlessly worry about unfounded pollution. Even good-quality data could overwhelm regulators if they have to follow up on multiple complaints generated from the measurements.
Still, the new and cheaper sensor technologies won't be replacing official sources of air monitoring any time soon. The compliance needed for legal enforcement is held to a much higher standard.
“EPA is taking this very seriously,” said Eddie Terrill, director of the air quality division at the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality. “There may be some states who use this data to supplement their monitoring network.”
Terrill spoke about the technology to energy industry representatives at last week's Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association meeting in Oklahoma City. His division works with EPA on air quality issues in the state.
Typical air monitoring stations used by Terrill's division can cost anywhere from $50,000 to $150,000 per site. They are far more complex and can measure a wider range of pollutants than their counterparts that cost $1,000 to $2,000, he said.
EPA has held conferences and is working with technology companies and sensor researchers on what it calls “Next Generation Air Monitoring.”
The agency also is reaching out to hobbyists who are tinkering in their shops or garages to make air monitoring devices for a few hundred dollars.
“The cost has gotten so low now that people can build these things in their garage, and it's amazing the accuracy of them,” Terrill said.
Despite the concerns over data quality and quantity, Terrill said citizen monitoring could get more people involved in advocating for clean air. “As we push these things down to local levels, you have more of an understanding of the local issues that we might not be aware of,” Terrill said.
Whitney Pearson, associate organizing representative for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign in Oklahoma, said grassroots monitoring has long been a part of the Sierra Club's mission.
New technologies can enhance those efforts, she said.“These could definitely be useful for areas that don't have monitors for learning more about what the air quality issues in their area might be,” Pearson said. “It might provide better information for people with asthma or other respiratory illnesses who are usually encouraged to stay indoors on bad air quality days. This technology could be exciting because it may empower people to know more about what's going on with their air quality in their homes and communities.”
Pearson said reliability and quality will still be needed for new citizen-based monitoring data to supplement the efforts of agency officials.
“They only have so much manpower,” Pearson said. “I can see where this could help, but I can also see how it could complicate things. It can also help inform people to have this information at their fingertips if they live near a site where they have concerns.”