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Cheaper sensor technology may lead to more citizen air monitoring

The Environmental Protection Agency is keeping an eye on new and cheaper technologies that would allow private citizens to measure air quality in their neighborhoods. Some regulators and scientists say the efforts are important but data quality and reliability are still concerns.
by Paul Monies Modified: December 20, 2013 at 4:00 pm •  Published: December 19, 2013

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.

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by Paul Monies
Energy Reporter
Paul Monies is an energy reporter for The Oklahoman. He has worked at newspapers in Texas and Missouri and most recently was a data journalist for USA Today in the Washington D.C. area. Monies also spent nine years as a business reporter and...
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