Understanding air quality monitoring process

Understanding air quality monitoring processes

With an estimated 7 million premature deaths attributed to polluted air annually, it has become crucial to understand the air quality monitoring process and address the significant health and environmental impacts associated with poor air quality. Air quality monitoring involves a systematic, long-term analysis of pollutant levels by examining the types and quality of pollutants in the environment. This process covers indoor and outdoor environments and is vital for air quality control and management.

What is the Air Quality Index?


The Air Quality Index (AQI) is a regular reporting index that provides valuable insights into local air quality, helping individuals understand its impact on their health. The AQI of a region includes data concerning five major pollutants: particulate pollutants (PM10 and PM2.5), ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. The higher the AQI value, the greater the air pollution-associated health concerns. Categorised into six levels, each associated with specific health concerns, the AQI scale uses colours to simplify comprehension for the general public.

Overall, monitoring AQI serves multiple purposes. It identifies suboptimal air quality management practices indoors and outdoors, encouraging governments, institutions and households to implement robust monitoring systems, reduce pollution levels, and ensure cleaner air for better environmental and human health. Additionally, monitoring AQI aids in tracking improvements, deteriorations, or any changes in air quality over time.

The importance of the air quality monitoring process


Systematically monitoring pollutant concentrations helps gain relevant information and extract crucial insights essential for defining and addressing pollution problems. The air quality monitoring process includes different air quality monitoring methods. Further, multiple air quality monitoring parameters offer a holistic approach to shaping pollution abatement strategies. Air quality monitors serve as valuable tools to track the progress of mitigation strategies and assess their efficacy. This data-driven approach allows for a refined response to the harms associated with environmental pollutants.

Several factors – like the location of emission sources (indoor or outdoor), topography, and meteorological conditions – govern air pollution. The distribution and extent of pollution vary due to region-specific factors and diverse climatic conditions. The US EPA emphasises the importance of monitoring pollution in specific regions to reduce pollutant concentration levels effectively. Monitoring air quality helps to:

  1. Provide prompt air pollution data to the general public
  2. Support the implementation of air quality goals or standards
  3. Evaluate the effectiveness of emissions control strategies
  4. Offer updated information on air quality trends, and
  5. Facilitate long-term trend analysis and support research, such as studies on the health effects of air pollution

Outdoor air quality monitoring vs indoor air quality monitoring


The outdoor air quality monitoring process adheres to standards defined by national authorities and international organisations to ensure a healthier living environment. Outdoor air quality is influenced by factors like industrialisation, uncontrolled urbanisation, population growth, and fossil fuel combustion. Over the past two decades, outdoor air pollution levels have surged by around 66%, necessitating the implementation of innovative measures across the world, such as Green Belts in the UK.

Concurrently, monitoring indoor air quality (IAQ) and mitigating the risks associated with exposure to indoor pollutants is of immense significance for the health and comfort of occupants. The indoor environment hosts pollutants such as dust mites, pollen, carbon fibres, pet dander, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from paints and varnishes; each of these contributes to health issues and affects productivity. Recognising these fundamental elements helps address indoor air pollution’s pervasive impact, ranging from lost productivity in workplaces to absenteeism in schools, which hinder economic and educational outcomes.

Outdoor air quality monitoring methods


There are diverse outdoor air quality monitoring methods, but the most commonly used ones focus on particulate matter (PM) concentration. Internationally recognised methods include the gravimetric, tapered element oscillating microbalance (TEOM), and laser scattering methods. These air quality monitoring methods are integral to any comprehensive air quality monitoring process, each contributing unique insights through distinct parameters.

Indoor air quality monitoring methods


One commonly used indoor air quality monitoring method is continuous or real-time monitoring; this involves using IAQ sensors to collect data 24/7 and provide minute-by-minute readings of indoor air conditions. This ongoing process ensures a comprehensive understanding of IAQ dynamics. Another commonly used method is indoor air quality testing as a discrete event involving a one-time assessment; this usually involves using a handheld probe to capture a snapshot of air quality at a specific moment.

Air quality monitoring parameters: Understanding how indoor air quality monitoring systems work


While measuring outdoor air quality is usually the mandate of public bodies, indoor air quality can and should be measured by organisations and households as well. This enables groups of people to take an active, engaged role in improving environmental and human health.

To measure indoor air quality, IAQ monitors track various parameters, including the concentrations of particulate matter originating from cigarette smoke, outdoor pollution, and other sources. This is particularly important because particulate matter, comprising tiny particles like pollen and smoke, can pose health risks as serious as lung cancer, especially when inhaled deeply.

IAQ devices also monitor the critical metric of carbon dioxide levels. This is particularly important given the impact of CO2 levels on cognitive performance and overall health, with effects ranging from headaches to asphyxia. CO2 levels can become extremely high in crowded spaces, areas where combustion processes occur, and areas with high soil carbon dioxide.

IAQ monitors also detect carbon monoxide (a colourless, odourless gas with potentially severe health consequences) and ozone (a respiratory system irritant found in certain air-cleaning devices and originating from outdoor sources like pollution and paints). Monitoring other indoor pollutants, notably volatile organic compounds (VOCs) present in household products like air fresheners and cleaning agents, is also important. VOC exposure can cause discomfort, allergic reactions, and, in some cases, visual disorders and memory impairment. Monitoring all these parameters allows for timely intervention.

In the post-COVID-19 world, commercial establishments recognise the limitations of managing HVAC systems based solely on temperature control. With a newfound appreciation for high air quality, businesses are increasingly investing in advanced air quality devices equipped to monitor IAQ across a spectrum of crucial parameters. Drawn by the potential of IAQ monitors to offer real-time data on PM as small as 0.3 microns, prominent companies are leading the way by championing their adoption. This shift reflects an expanded perception of IAQ, prompting a corresponding expansion in the scope and capabilities of indoor air quality monitoring methods. Integrating comprehensive air quality monitoring processes and parameters is becoming a priority for commercial entities, aligning with the broader goal of creating healthier and safer indoor environments.


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