Making sense of the air pollution problem

Sitting in the comfort of your car when stuck in traffic, there has bound to be more than once when you have wondered at the toxicity of what you may be drawing in right at that moment. What could be the impacts of such inhalation? And what could you do to be relatively safe? Most reflections last only for a minute or two before you continue with life as usual. But what are the pollutants of the air that may have adverse health impacts, and is there a way to be more aware and less ignorant? What corrective measures could the governments, communities and individuals take to help the situation?

Firstly, it is vital to understand the composition of air in relation to the Air Quality Index (AQI). AQI is an index that is adopted by government agencies across the world to communicate the air pollution levels to their citizens. Generally, the index is calculated from the concentrations of the following "criteria" pollutants: sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), suspended particulates smaller than 10 µm in aerodynamic diameter (PM10), suspended particulates smaller than 2.5 µm in aerodynamic diameter (PM2.5), carbon monoxide (CO), and ozone (O3). India also measures Ammonia (NH3), and Lead (Pb) levels as a part of its AQI.

Secondly, the Volatile Organic Compounds group or VOCs as they are collectively termed, that are not a part of AQI, yet they are a key contributor to photochemical smog and several of them are classified as carcinogenics. VOCs are organic compounds which have high vapor pressure and become gases at ambient pressure and temperature. Industrial processes, vehicle emissions, evaporative losses from petrol storage and forest/bush fires contribute to higher concentrations of VOCs in the air. It is especially meaningful to measure a group of VOCs, together known as BTEX, comprising benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene, as they are straightforward to monitor together, and provide a well-rounded picture of VOCs that are present in most urban settings.

Thirdly, while there are air quality monitoring sites setup around many areas and the data from the monitors is available to the public through searchable databases, these endeavors are sparse and may not apply to your locale. On the other hand, technology has made buying sensors for individual use a viable and cheap option, although some sensors like those for the VOCs group are not as readily available. Buying and setting up an air quality monitor, however, if justification is found for its use, especially for a community of urban area residents, may offer greater insights. There are several manufactures of air quality sensors such as BAPI, IONScience, SiemensFoobot and others. The data from such a setup is clearly owned by the party and you may decide to contribute it to the regional initiatives.

Finally, research leaps such as those undertaken by the UNEP DEWA team working on an innovative Air Quality Monitoring station which they co-developed with Nairobi University, and will cost as little as 1.5K USD per unit, that is at least 10 times cheaper than the traditional BAM and TOEM monitor which can be bought at about 15K or more in the market, give us immense faith that technology is poised to solve our problems. And considering that the UNEP monitoring station is also a blueprint solution for the future models. Closer to home, CISCO’s Innovation Center at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia is developing solutions for the sensing and analysis of air quality using an advanced Wide Area Network (WAN) called LoRa.

As an example, Real-time Air Quality Index Visual Map of the World can be seen here.

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