A pungent smell when walking behind a car, a horizon tinged with a brownish color, thick smoke that emerges from a chimney, or a throat that itches when we’re painting… Observations that we can make with our senses alone can be very useful in detecting changes in air quality.

However, when it comes to quantifying air pollution, we have to get back into the world of science and technology. So what technologies are used to measure pollution levels, and help us control the quality of the air we breathe? 

It all depends on what you want to do. There are many technologies for measuring air quality, most often specific to a particular pollutant. These technologies can differ in many ways, such as: their precision, their cost, or size.

In the case of research labs or government agencies responsible for providing official air quality measurements at the national level, they will use sophisticated, stationary measuring devices which are precise up to the part per billion (ppb). Each of these fixed stations, which continuously measures pollution in their immediate vicinity, is equipped with several measuring devices called analysers. These analysers are actually high powered mini-computers filled with a lot of expensive tech. They can cost as much as $10,000! 

The measurement of each pollutant follows standards related to the technology used: radiometry for PM10, photometry or UV spectroscopy for ozone, chemiluminescence for nitrogen oxides, infrared spectroscopy for carbon monoxide are some examples of the different technologies used.

These official station measurements are extremely valuable, and form the cornerstone of the air pollution models that Plume Labs builds. They are used both to develop estimates of air pollution anywhere in the country (not just around stations!) and to make forecasts over time.

Can I measure the air quality in my home? 

Outdoor air pollution is a major problem, but maintaining good indoor air quality is also fundamental to our health. We spend on average 80 to 90% of our days indoors, and the air we breathe is often polluted. New furniture, cleaning and beauty products, and paints are all sources of pollution, in particular VOCs. So how can you figure out what you’re breathing at home and what can you do to make it better? 

Personal pollution sensors are smaller and more accessible than their government issue counterparts, and allow individuals to not only measure the quality of indoor air, but also to track individual exposure over time. Having access to personal pollution data of this caliber has been proven to help individuals better protect themselves and their loved ones - reducing their overall exposure to air pollution. 

Flow, the personal air quality sensor developed by Plume Labs, measures particulate matter (PM10, PM2.5 and PM1), NO2, and VOCs. Flow uses two different techniques for measuring air quality: laser diffraction for fine particles and measuring the conductivity variations of metal oxides for NO2 and VOCs.