With forest fires and EPA cuts, the best option to monitor air pollution may be a DIY approach.

Share story

The hottest new apocalypse-preparation choice for 2019 is not a bunker or a gun or a lifeboat.

It’s a small gadget that measures the air pollution around you.

As climate change reports become increasingly dire, and as wildfires tear across the American West, and as trust in the federal government’s air quality oversight fades, thousands of people around the country are taking air measurements into their own hands.

Installed on a porch, a console table or hooked to a backpack, these small, sleek and increasingly inexpensive devices measure hyperlocal air quality. They are marketed to the discerning and alarmed consumer. Some have begun to self-identify as “breathers.”

The Atmotube and PlumeLab’s Flow are small and meant to be carried around, testing the air as a person walks or bikes, helping people plan routes that avoid bad air. The Awair looks like an old-timey radio and sits on a counter to test indoor air. Aeroqual’s particulate monitor, one of the most advanced, looks like an enormous old-fashioned cellphone.

But the monitor most intriguing local government environmental protection agencies and civilians alike is PurpleAir. It hooks up outside, connects to Wi-Fi, feeds into a global network and creates something like a guerrilla air quality monitoring network.

Adrian Dybwad, 49, founder of PurpleAir, would watch the dust from a nearby gravel pit blow near his house in Draper, Utah, where he lives with his wife. When the miners working there tried to expand it even closer, he decided he had to do something. First he had to prove there was something wrong with the air.

The PurpleAir pollution monitor costs $179 for an indoor unit and $229–$259 for an outdoor model.
The PurpleAir pollution monitor costs $179 for an indoor unit and $229–$259 for an outdoor model.

“I said to myself, it’s 2015, surely there must be a sensor that can tell me how much dust is in there,” Dybwad said.

But nothing he could find was both cheap and accurate. So he made his own.

Neighbors got interested. Dybwad, who has a background in computer networking and surface-mount electronics, asked for donations and raised a few thousand dollars, and the community installed 80 sensors. The amount of floating particles in the air (called particulate matter) was high, especially on windy days. The closest government-run sensor was more than 10 miles away, and not picking up any of this.

As the community gathered with sensors, plans for the mine expansion vaporized.

In the last year, interest in the project has spiked. Now he has more than 3,000 monitors reporting data every day. He has built a map to show what every PurpleAir around the world is reporting (green is good, red is bad). Local government air quality monitoring groups are using the devices.

Since the California wildfires in November, Dybwad said, traffic has been up 10,000 percent.

“You can’t give the government control over monitoring and enforcement because then you can just monitor to the extent that you want to enforce,” he said. “Having this type of power in the public’s hands, it gives a check on the government.”

The Atmotube Plus personal air pollution detector, $198 for two
The Atmotube Plus personal air pollution detector, $198 for two

Vera Kozyr, chief executive of Atmotube, said her company sold 8,000 of its first version and introduced a new tube in December.

“We’ve seen a huge increase of interest in the last few months, especially from the U.S.,” Kozyr said. “Awareness is just starting.”

Fans of the new pollution monitors tend to also be skeptical of government efforts to keep air clean and say they are wary of the air-quality data that the government provides. “At some points,” Kozyr said, “you can’t trust the government.”

The Trump administration has urged the Environmental Protection Agency to ease air quality rules. New EPA leadership seems to be on board with this plan. The administration is working to overhaul restrictions on coal, which by its own estimates could lead to as many as 1,400 more premature deaths annually by 2030 from an increase in the airborne particulate matter.

“Do we have sufficient monitors? No. There’s not enough of them,” said Janice E. Nolen, vice president of the American Lung Association, citing both lack of funding and industry interests. “People don’t necessarily want to know where air quality is bad in some cases.”

“Of about 3,000 counties” in the U.S., Nolen said, “only eight or nine hundred have air quality monitors at all.”

Having so few monitors means that something like the downwind effects of a wildfire can be hard to detect.

“It can be frustrating to residents when they see the air is bad, and then they look at a map and it’s showing green or good because none of the monitors happen to be downwind of the smoke,” said Sam Atwood, who works for the air quality management district that oversees much of Southern California. He installed a PurpleAir in his backyard.

The monitors his district operates can cost over $100,000, Atwood said. A PurpleAir monitor goes for $179 to $259. So Atwood’s district, with funding from a 2016 EPA grant, is now running a pilot program to test low cost monitors with community groups across the state.

“I tell my friends, ‘You don’t want to know what I know,’” said Joe Lyou, who sits on the South Coast Air Quality Management District Governing Board. “There’s a lot of pollution.”

He installed a PurpleAir two years ago and is now gathering neighbors together to do the same.

“I’m downwind of two power plants, a refinery and next to a freeway,” he said. “And I have a kid who’s asthmatic.”

The sensor helps Lyou decide when it’s safe for his son to play outside.