Citizen science: Air quality monitoring

Neighborhood level air pollution represents a long-standing issue for many communities. Historically, it’s been difficult to track local air quality due to the cost of air quality monitoring equipment.

Monitoring local air quality is a common application for citizen science.

As air quality monitoring technology becomes more accurate, accessible and affordable, more and more people are becoming “citizen scientists” for better air quality in their local neighborhoods.

What is a citizen scientist?

A citizen scientist is an individual who voluntarily contributes his or her time to help with scientific research. Citizen scientists don’t necessarily have a formal science background. Monitoring local air quality is a common application for citizen science.

Citizen scientists are well-placed to monitor hyperlocal air quality.

Citizen scientists are well-placed to monitor hyperlocal air quality. Communities at large can participate, gathering data from specific locations at precise times. This data can be analyzed to find patterns to help in finding solutions.1

If you suspect air pollution in your neighborhood is an issue, find out if there is any current data about local pollution levels. A great to place to start is There you will find free air quality data for more than 80,000 locations worldwide.

The need for air quality monitoring

Unlike weather, air quality often fluctuates within a neighborhood or city. It can be so localized that it will significantly vary block by block and from one hour to the next. Areas near freeways and busy streets have worse air quality than traffic-free neighborhoods.

More data for more places is what is needed, and citizen scientists are the answer.

Air pollution levels are strongly correlated with local weather conditions and nearby pollution emissions. However, long-range transport of pollution by strong winds is also a significant influencing factor and should be kept in mind. This hyperlocal aspect of air quality is why air quality monitoring is one of the best fits for citizen scientists.2

More data for more places is what is needed, and citizen scientists are the answer.

Citizen scientists making an impact

Residents of a community in Denver, CO noticed spills of perchloroethylene (PERC), a solvent commonly used in dry cleaning. Also known as tetrachloroethylene, the vapors it admits are an inhalable VOC (volatile organic chemical) that is classified as a “probable human carcinogen.”

They had stumbled upon a previously undetected radon “hotspot.”

A local community organization looked for researchers to help test neighborhood homes for PERC and radon (another dangerous VOC). A nearby university and a large community science organization agreed to partner with the local group, and a coalition was born. Residents, students, and a lead scientist took measurements and the results were tested in a lab.

Air quality monitoring was able to ensure that PERC levels remained below EPA’s designated “action level.” However, 80 percent of tested homes showed radon levels well above the action level. They had stumbled upon a previously undetected radon “hotspot.” With this knowledge, action can now be taken.3 This is just one example of the power of citizen scientists at the hyperlocal level.

A “bucket brigade” of citizen scientists

Faced with declining health, a small group of New York residents started using buckets and hand-held vacuums to take air samples. They placed plastic bags inside buckets, connected a hose to the bag, and used either camping pumps or small electric vacuums to collect air samples. The samples were taken to state and independent labs for evaluation and showed extremely high levels of benzene, a known human carcinogen.

The bucket brigadehelped hold polluters accountable.

This information was the catalyst for state regulators to formally blame Tonawanda Coke for releasing high levels of benzene and other dangerous chemicals in violation of the Clean Air Act. The bucket brigadeimproved their neighborhood and helped hold polluters accountable.

Revealing the invisible in Nigeria

There are many examples of people becoming citizen scientists for better air quality all around the world. For example, a proactive citizen in Nigeria took it upon himself to use an air quality monitor – the AirVisual Series – to provide his community with a public outdoor monitoring station.

This citizen scientist was able to quantify high levels of pollutants.

This citizen scientist was able to quantify high levels of pollutants. In fact, pollutant spikes sometimes cause local air quality readings in Port Harcourt to skyrocket over 400 – meaning that poor air quality is a public health emergency – empowering his community with knowledge.

How to become a public air quality data contributor (It’s easy!)

It's never been so easy to become a citizen scientist. Register your AirVisual Outdoor air quality monitoras a public air quality station in four quick steps:

  1. Find an outdoor location sheltered from rain, wind, and direct sunlight that has good, natural airflow. Your location should not be higher than 10 meters (30 ft) and must not be near air polluters like chimneys.
  2. Submit your AirVisual Outdoor outdoor location details on the AirVisual site. Click here for the full instructions.
  3. AirVisual analyzes your readings for one-to-two weeks before adding your location data to the public air quality map.
  4. Spread the word that you are now an air quality data contributor!

It’s an exciting time to begin participating in the growing citizen science movement for better air quality. Air quality monitors are more accurate, portable, and affordable than ever. And, WiFi allows you to share that information with the world. Every day, citizen scientists are contributing data that helps people live longer, healthier lives. Get your AirVisual Seriesmonitor and start today!

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