With wildfire smoke spreading over North America, an increasing demand for personal air-quality monitors reveals how climate change is reshaping citizens’ day-to-day habits and concerns.
“More individuals, non-profits, and even government agencies are buying their own sensors to track air quality in combination with monitors from the [U.S.] Environmental Protection Agency,” reports Bloomberg CityLab.
As forests and towns succumb to wildfire flames, the burning materials send gas and particles into the air, which “can inflict a range of health problems, from coughing and headaches to an elevated risk of heart attack.”
The poor air quality can even increase people’s vulnerability to COVID-19. A recent study looking at health impacts in California, Oregon, and Washington “estimated there would have been 19,742 fewer COVID-19 cases if not for the smoke from 2020’s record-breaking wildfires, due to lung irritation and immune responses raising infection risk,” Bloomberg reports.
U.S. public air quality reporting is largely built on the index maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is based on data from sensors located across the U.S. Now, citizens are collecting their own data by using personal monitoring devices, which can be purchased online for about US$250, says Bloomberg. Some sensor manufacturers, such as Utah-based PurpleAir, even maintain their own online air quality maps derived from information they collect from personal users.
Benjamin Clark, a University of Oregon public policy and planning professor, says that while governments use “a wide and consistently accurate range of information sources,” PurpleAir’s map is updated more frequently to produce hyper-local information.
“I might get a hazardous air quality warning from my county but then look at this map and see that the problem doesn’t actually start until 15 miles out of town,” Clark said. He told Bloomberg that level of accuracy lets him make better-informed decisions about maintaining daily activities.
Bloomberg notes that smoke from fires in Canada and the Western U.S. is now affecting air quality ratings across the continent. The particulate reading in Minnesota July 29 was the highest ever recorded in the state, while the air quality in Denver August 7 was worse than any other major city in the world.