A Home Air Quality Monitor That Can Be Checked Out From The Library

May 24, 2015
Originally published on May 24, 2015 3:54 pm

Air pollution comes from many sources — power plants, industrial production and fires, to name a few. In Pittsburgh, the most polluted city east of California, according the American Lung Association, avoiding dirty air while outdoors can be difficult, if not impossible. But a new device, available through the public library system, helps people identify and reduce bad air quality inside their homes.

John Horchner, one of those people, has been eagerly waiting to check out a Speck air quality monitor from Pittsburgh's Carnegie Library for a few weeks. The small, WiFi-connected device detects and calculates the level of fine particulate matter, particles that are invisible to the naked eye and just a tiny fraction of the width of a human hair. The lower the count, the better the air — and the fewer risks to health.

A high presence of particulate matter can exacerbate problems like asthma, lung disease and allergies. But the loanable air monitor is helping residents find and fix the source of the problem.

Horchner and his family live in a leafy neighborhood, but the greenery can belie high levels of particulate matter drifting through the air. He and his family are healthy, but they typically have three air purifiers pumping away at home.

"There is no such thing as moderate particles," Horchner insists. "Tell that to the person that was out jogging and died of a heart attack: 'Oh, it was moderate today.' "

Horchner's family is amused by his vigilance, but now his daughter, Christine, and wife, Nadine, are gathered around the kitchen table to see what the Speck monitor will reveal. Horchner guesses an optimistic 10 or lower. Nadine predicts the room will yield a reading of 30.

The reading climbs to 22 and stays there. In the next test site, the upstairs study, it scores a 20. These are pretty good numbers. Finally, they head to their daughter's room, where Horchner has attempted an experiment. Earlier in the day, he sealed off the door with duct tape to try and create a controlled environment. The result: 30. Not great, but not bad.

Illah Nourbakhsh, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University's CREATE Lab, which developed the Speck, attributes the indoor pollution to "infiltration" by Pittsburgh's dirty air seeping in around the windows and up through the floorboards.

Even perfectly healthy people can be harmed in the long term by polluted air, Noorbaksh says. "We're talking about the kind of heart conditions like arrhythmia, like cardiovascular disease," he says. "Those are things that are going to not necessarily kill you, but they're going to make the quality of your life go down."

For now, Pittsburgh libraries are the only ones to make the Speck available to borrowers. But the CREATE Lab is trying to place the monitors for lending in other libraries across the country. People with low incomes tend to live in areas with the worst air quality, Noobaksh emphasizes. Those who can't afford their own Speck — each costs $200 — can borrow one for a few weeks.

Ultimately, Nourbakhsh says, the goal is to change behaviors. Since the quality of a room's air can be affected by a variety of ordinary household activities, Nourbakhsh says the monitor can help people identify and change habits that contribute to poor air quality. For example, people can make sure air is vented while cooking, put a filter over a window air conditioner unit or vacuum long before the kids get home, giving particles time to settle.

"You start to connect how you feel and what you smell with what you see," he says. "And pretty soon, you don't need the Speck anymore."

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Avoiding polluted air outside can be difficult if not impossible. For most of us, between power plants, industry and fires, dirty air is all around us. One family in Pittsburgh is taking advantage of a device available through the local library system to reduce bad air quality inside their homes. WESA's Larkin Page-Jacobs has their story.

UNIDENTIFIED LIBRARY WORKER: That's for three weeks.

JOHN HORCHNER: Three weeks - great.

UNIDENTIFIED LIBRARY WORKER: Yes. Bye-bye.

LARKIN PAGE-JACOBS, BYLINE: John Horchner has been eagerly waiting to check out the Speck monitor from the Carnegie Library for a few weeks. The device detects tiny particles the fraction of a width of a hair and counts them - the lower the number, the better. Horchner and his family live in a leafy neighborhood. But the greenery can belie high levels of particulate matter drifting through the air. And while he and his family are healthy, he tries to exert some control at home. They typically have three air purifiers pumping away.

HORCHNER: I think anything above good is probably bad. There is no such thing as moderate particles. Tell that to the person that was out jogging and died of a heart attack. Oh, it was moderate today.

PAGE-JACOBS: His family is amused by his vigilance. But now his daughter Christine and wife Nadine are gathered around the kitchen table to see what the Speck monitor will reveal. Horchner guesses an optimistic 10 or lower. Nadine predicts the room will give a reading of 30.

HORCHNER: OK. Here is. It's at zero. Look. Calm down. OK - back. It went up to eight then back to seven. So twelve - oh, here we are. OK, kids. In a second, I'm going to turn the air purifier on.

PAGE-JACOBS: It climbs to 22 and stays there. Next test site - the upstairs study. It scores a 20 - pretty good readings. Finally, they head to their daughter's room, where Horchner has run a little experiment. He sealed off the door with duct tape earlier in the day in an attempt to create a controlled environment.

CHRISTINE: I can't open.

HORCHNER: OK. OK, let's keep the stale air in.

PAGE-JACOBS: The verdict - 30. Not great but not bad.

ILLAH NOURBAKHSH: So it's the outside air. That's infiltration.

PAGE-JACOBS: Illah Nourbakhsh attributes the particulate pollution to Pittsburgh's dirty air seeping in around the windows and up through the floorboards. He's a professor at Carnegie Mellon University's CREATE Lab which develops technology for social innovation. Beyond infiltration from the outdoors, the air in a room is affected by a variety of activities. Nourbakhsh says the monitor can help people identify polluters in their house and change their habits, whether it's making sure air is vented while cooking, putting a filter over a window AC unit or vacuuming long before the kids get home so the particles have time to settle. And it's not just for those with existing health conditions. Perfectly healthy people can be harmed in the long term by dirty air.

NOURBAKHSH: We're talking the kind of heart conditions like arrhythmia, like cardiovascular disease. Those are things that are going to not necessarily kill you, but they're going to make the quality of your life go down.

PAGE-JACOBS: Nourbakhsh says they partnered with libraries because low-income people tend to live in areas with the worst air quality. The Speck costs $200. And those who can't afford it can borrow it for a few weeks. The CREATE Lab is trying to get them placed in libraries across the country. Ultimately, Nourbakhsh says the goal is to change behaviors.

NOURBAKHSH: You start to connect how you feel and what you smell with what you see. And pretty soon, you don't need the Speck anymore.

PAGE-JACOBS: Back in his home, John Horchner says he's OK with the air quality in his house though he may add one more air purifier. For NPR News, I'm Larkin Page-Jacobs in Pittsburgh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.