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Portable Air Pollution Sensors

Portable air pollution sensors provide an opportunity for individuals and communities to better understand their exposure to various air pollutants, both indoors and outdoors. These sensors are much smaller and lower in cost than traditional stationary air pollution monitors; for example, they may be small enough to carry in a hand or place on a tabletop and they may cost as little as a few hundred dollars. Sensors have been developed to measure several pollutants, including ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds and others. 

While these low-cost sensors can be a useful tool for understanding air pollution and for knowing when pollution concentrations may be high in a specific location, these sensors do not undergo the rigorous quality control and calibration procedures that are used in regulatory air monitoring. Some types of sensors perform somewhat well when compared to a regulatory-quality monitor, while other types of sensors do not. Performance varies from sensor to sensor and from pollutant to pollutant.

The US EPA Air Sensor Toolbox website has some resources that are useful for making sense of air sensor readings and for deciding if air pollution sensors can help you answer questions about your local air quality. This website also includes tools to help users plot data they have collected from air pollution sensors. The US EPA has updated The Enhanced Air Sensor Guidebook which includes best practices, current knowledge, and recommendations on sensors. Additional resources for communities or individuals interested in air monitoring may be found on the California South Coast AQMD Air Quality Sensor Performance Evaluation Center website.

One vendor of particulate matter sensors, PurpleAir, manages a website that includes a map of data collected by users of PurpleAir sensors. PurpleAir has also partnered with the weather website Weather Underground to deploy a large number of particulate matter sensors around the world and to map their results. They have also been incorporated into the AirNow Fire and Smoke map.

To determine compliance with the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, the department oversees an ambient monitoring network of more than 200 monitors at nearly 100 stationary sites. Determinations of compliance with ambient air quality standards can only be made with Federal Reference Method (FRM) or Federal Equivalent Method (FEM) monitors that are sited and operated in accordance with US EPA requirements in Part 58 of Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations. Although portable sensors are not a substitute for Florida’s network data, information from portable sensors can still be used to give a qualitative understanding of relative pollutant concentrations at a location. Even if less accurate or precise than FRM or FEM monitors, portable sensors can be used in ways that regulatory monitors cannot: for example, many industries use small portable sensors worn by a person to warn of hazardous work conditions or determine personal exposure to a particular pollutant. Also, their low cost allows for the possibility of deployment of several portable sensors to cover a small area, which would capture the spatial variability of pollution in ways that a single regulatory monitor cannot.

U.S. EPA OAR Memorandum on Air Sensor Data for NAAQS Compliance

On June 22, 2020, Anne Idsal, Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator for the U.S. EPA Office of Air and Radiation, signed a memorandum on air sensors intended to “address recent questions from state and local air agencies regarding EPA’s position on the use of air sensor data for National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) compliance and describe steps the Agency is taking to better understand the data quality, interpretation, and management of sensor data in the ambient environment.” 

Last Modified:
December 7, 2022 - 8:26am

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