Air Quality an invisible threat?
How did I get interested in Air Quality?
Air Quality, for many is a clear and present threat. For many others, it is less obvious or even seemingly irrelevant. How good is the air you breathe? Read on…
In an article from The Independent, German researches claim up to 8.8 million deaths per year will be caused by bad air quality. In Europe alone, that would be 790,000 people a year. That makes air pollution more deadly than smoking.
Particulate matter and air quality
Try out these websites for air quality data
There are many factors to air quality, including Ozone (O3), Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC). VOCs are the kind of thing that you find in stinky gloss paint and certain marker pens, but can also be found from kitchen detergents to mothballs.
However, particulate matter is where real progress has been made in the recent years – by progress I mean in measuring, reporting, awarenesses and beginning to understand how control it.
Unfortunately there is still a lot more progress to be made in actually controlling and reducing it. The first step to that, like the purpose of this article, is to create better understanding and awareness not just at institutional levels, but amongst individuals like you and me.
So read on to be ahead of the curve…
What is particulate matter and where does it come from?
Particulate matter comes from many sources, including soot and smoke (yes, those wood burning stoves might be trendy and give you cheap fuel, but they are not good for the air at all), diesel exhaust fumes, construction sites, dust, the wear and tear of brake pads and discs, and the wear and tear of pretty much anything, including car tires and train wheels or tracks, plus, natural sources like mould, pollen and spores.
When it comes to modern day conversations about air quality, the two major groups of particulate matter are known as PM2.5 and PM10.
PM2.5 and PM10 refers to the size of the particle in microns, 2.5 microns and 10 microns. To help understand the sizes, a small grain of sand is about 90 microns in size, meaning a PM2.5 particle is about 36 times smaller than a fine grain of sand, and about 3 times smaller than a red blood cell.
The dangers of particulate matter
Particulate matter enters the body via your respiratory system, and is small enough to pass through the membrane of your lungs and into your blood stream. From there, particular matter can impact brain health, organ health, heart health, vision and pretty much anything important in your body.
In most cases, you’re breathing in PM2.5 and PM10 without even noticing it, and in small amounts its not really much to worry about it. There are, of course, some times and some places where the level of pollutants in the air is quite obviously dangerous. See the article from CNN.
Understanding air quality around you
Whilst measuring air quality has long been a concern of industry and government, in recent years, there have been a number of companies helping to provide more transparency for every-day people like you and me.
With the work the World Health Organisation and the EU has done to categorise, set limits and penalties for air quality infractions, there has been quite a bit of progress. However, I don’t think there has been enough done.
A lot of the data on air quality comes from complex scientific models that include weather, natural events (forest fires, volcanoes, ocean bacteria blooms etc), traffic, industry and high-precision measurements at known locations.
These high-accuracy measurements are conducted using expensive, highly calibrated equipment like the kind of giant cabinets you might see around your cities, towns or villages.
Actually, scratch that.
Not in villages because they are far too expensive to deploy that widely, and that’s my point.
These units can cost councils hundreds of thousands of pounds a year to install and run, so they have to be deployed at very carefully selected locations, and the data used to feed into models to determine the predicted air quality in other areas, like schools, suburban, rural, residential or commercial areas.
Air Quality tools you can use
Over the last few years, there’s been a number of apps and websites launched to help you get a better understanding of air quality. Two of my favourite are listed below.
Before you go to much further, you better get to know the handy colour chart that is widely used to describe the air quality indicators (AQI) and the impact on health. So take a quick look at this to get the sense of it:
I like this site a lot because of the ease of use and how the data is presented graphically. They also have a great app you can download to your phone, too.
If you’re looking for a little more detail and depth, in multiple languages then AQICN is a good place to look. They also have a great way to show the historical air quality in virtually any location.
Models are great, however…
Related: Read more about some of the surprising things that impact your air in What Affects Air QualityHaving worked in a statistical modelling company, I know that models can be great, but they do have their weakness. The most notable being that they are unlikely to be able to predict with any degree of accuracy, what things are like for you, me or any individual in any given day.
Find out how I went about discovering more about my own exposure to local air quality in an upcoming post. Make sure you subscribe to find out more.