What You Really Need to Know about Air Pollution Monitoring and Measuring

By February 20, 2018 No Comments
10–12 minutes to read

The monitoring of air pollution is necessary for the health and safety of our society, as knowledge of air pollution levels is required to safeguard people from the harmful effects of air pollution. Accurate measurements of air pollution levels must be taken in order to take informed steps in combating air pollution. How is air pollution monitoring and measuring achieved? What methods do environmental groups and regulatory bodies use to measure levels of indoor air pollution?

Air Pollutants That Must Be Monitored

The first step in getting an accurate measurement of air pollution levels is to define the air pollutants you are interested in measuring. The primary air pollutants measured by entities concerned with air pollution include particulate matter (including black carbon), nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone and volatile organic compounds, and carbon monoxide.

“Particulate matter pollution comes from a variety of sources, but all PM pollution refers to tiny liquid and solid particles in the air,” says Camfil’s Charlie Seyffer, Manager of Marketing & Technical Materials and 37-year ASHRAE member and active committee participant. “These particles are so small they can easily penetrate people’s lungs and bloodstreams, doing damage to the cardiovascular system. These particles are smaller than the width of a human hair and are known as PM10 and PM2.5. PM10 refers to particles smaller than 10 µm across while PM2.5 refers to particles smaller than 2.5 µm across. Particulate matter pollution includes black carbon, soot, dust, and other airborne particles.” (1)

Nitrogen oxide is an odorless and colorless gas that is primarily released by the combustion of fossil fuels in cars, heaters, and cooking appliances. It becomes nitrogen dioxide when it mixes with oxygen in the air, and nitrogen dioxide can cause shortness of breath and chest pain, as well as the exacerbation of asthma or other previously existing respiratory ailments. It is also a component of smog. Similarly, sulfur dioxide is a non-flammable and colorless gas which can irritate the eyes and lungs. It is mainly released by industrial processes, is thought to contribute to the development of asthma, and also contributes to smog.

Ground-level ozone is formed by the interaction of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), including nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, with heat and sunlight in the atmosphere. This ozone can cause irreversible damage to the cardiovascular system in high enough quantities, and ozone is the primary contributor to photochemical smog. This smog not only harms people’s lungs but contributes to the greenhouse effect and global climate change.

“Carbon monoxide is odorless and colorless and it comes primarily from the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels,” says Seyffer. “When there is adequate oxygen, carbon monoxide immediately becomes less harmful carbon dioxide. In certain conditions though, such as the idling of motor vehicles, there’s not enough oxygen in the immediate area and carbon monoxide is released. Carbon monoxide prevents the lungs from getting the oxygen they need, and as such can quickly lead to nausea, confusion, and death.” (2)

Air Pollution Measuring Strategies

A variety of air pollution measuring strategies are employed by air pollution regulation and monitoring entities. The EPA oversees the creation of various instruments and methods of detection for ambient air pollutants, including mobile air measurement systems and black carbon monitors.

Mobile air measurement systems are vehicles that have been fitted with real-time air pollution tracking instruments, which are used to determine emissions sources and levels of air pollution near industrial facilities, refineries, ports, rail yards, and large source areas in general.

“Ambient air quality monitoring devices are devices which take frequent samples of air in a location and measure them for levels of ambient air pollutants,” says Seyffer. “The data collected from ambient air pollution monitoring stations are usually sent back to a field station where calculations are done to determine how air pollutant levels are changing day to day.” (3)

The EPA also has a series of stationary source emissions detecting instruments. These are stationary devices that collect information about air pollutants released by stationary sources, such as manufacturing plants and industrial facilities. The measurements taken from stationary source emissions monitoring devices are usually combined with ambient air quality monitoring devices to get a clear picture of how individual sources are contributing to levels of ambient air pollution.

There is also specific air pollution measuring devices employed to measure pollutants from hard to measure sources. Since the early 2000s, the EPA has had emissions measuring devices which are used to measure particle pollution and black carbon pollution from aircraft, which have historically been difficult sources to detect.

New air pollution sensors and monitoring methods are being developed all the time, including systems to evaluate emissions from wildfires, such as helium balloons fitted with sensors, and the creation of monitors that are attached to digital billboards. These billboards are frequently placed near highways where air pollution is the worst, and make use of existing infrastructure and electricity to monitor air pollutants without needing more investment.

Implications of Air Pollution Monitoring and Measuring

The implications of air pollution monitoring and measuring include improved abilities to inform the public about the hazards of air pollution and develop strategies to reduce air pollution.

“The Air Quality Index (AQI) was created as a simple and straightforward system that will keep the public apprised of levels of air pollutants in their geographical location. The AQI is split into six different levels, which ascend according to the severity of air pollution and the associated health dangers,” says Seyffer. “The higher the level of the AQI, the greater the danger to public health. This system is only possible because of the continuous monitoring that air pollution measuring devices enable. If there is no system of measuring levels of ambient air pollution, the public cannot be adequately informed about the dangers of the air in their location.” (4)

The monitoring and measuring of air pollutants are also critical to the development of air pollution reduction strategies. Air pollution reduction strategies should target the areas with the worst air pollution, and focus on the most polluting sources, in order to be the most efficient and effective. Without the information collected by ambient air quality monitoring devices and source emissions monitoring devices, air pollution strategies could be severely off target.

Effective air pollution monitoring and measuring are important for the health and safety of the public and the environment. For this reason, it is important to support the development of new and more efficient air pollution measuring devices.

Camfil air filter product line  can help you protect your health by giving you more information about air pollution monitoring and measuring. Camfil can educate you about the dangerous pollutants that need monitoring, as well as provide you with the filters that will remove these pollutants from your home. Contact Camfil today, don’t wait when it comes to your health.