Earlier this year, I participated in a COMIT community day workshop which asked us to think about ways in which air quality might be monitored for construction workers in tunnels. As a cyclist and someone employed at various civil engineering consultancies (Halcrow and then Tarmac Professional Services subsidiary Stanger Science and Environment), I have long held an interest in air quality issues, and that has been heightened in recent years by living close to the Blackwall Tunnel southern approach – notorious for creating occasional pockets of poor air quality in south-east London (my children attended a primary school less than 50m from the northbound carriageway, prone to long queues of stationary traffic in the morning rush-hour).
In 2012, I participated in a Kickstarter campaign and took delivery of an Air Quality Egg set – but this proved difficult to set up, left wires dangling between devices, and while it could share air quality readings to the web it needed a permanent IP connection, and when a firmware update required me to ship the kit back to the USA, I gave up on it.
However, earlier this year, I saw another crowd-funded campaign, this time on IndieGoGo, to support Atmotube, a wireless personal air pollution monitoring device that connects to a mobile phone. After a few months of updates from the Atmotube team my device was delivered just over a month ago (with my investor discount, it cost me $69 plus shipping), and within a couple of hours I was capturing and sharing air quality scores from my office and other locations.
Once charged up via a USB connection, the device can take readings every second, monitoring carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and other pollutants, while also measuring humidy and temperature. To access these measurements, a free app is available (iOS and Android), and my Samsung smartphone was soon giving me a steady flow of readings. These readings can also be shared with other users of the app via a simple map interface, and – even better for a social media addict – the readings can also be shared via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Swarm (though the latter is a bit clunky – mainly because the main sharing is via FourSquare, not Swarm). The readings can also be exported to Excel, but I have mainly been using the app’s dashboard and reporting tools (I can, for example, view results for the past hour, past day, or past week).
The device is about the size of a cigarette lighter, with the casing made of titanium – making it hard-wearing and good to look at (I’ve gone for the standard metal finish, but coloured options are also available!) – and it can be easily attached to a bag or keyring. I have used it to check air quality close to busy roads, in trains (both overground and on the London underground), as a car and bus passenger, and in various offices and meeting places, and, so far, I don’t appear to have been exposed to any particularly poor air quality. As the summary (right) shows, most of my air quality scores have been in the 80s and 90s – though my son managed to get it to read in the 50s and 60s by the simple tactic of exhaling hard into the mesh at the top of the tube!
I talked about Atmotube at the September 2016 COMIT community day and suggested such devices could be invaluable as a simple, user-friendly way for workers to monitor air quality around them both on-site and inside buildings. Typically, we take around 20,000 breaths a day, so Atmotube potentially provides greater awareness of what we are breathing in. In society at large, it could be helpful to asthmatics and those suffering from other lung conditions, as well as helping parents of young children and the elderly.
In the built environment, it might also help alert us to malfunctioning air conditioning or heating, or to leaks of gases, etc. I am not sure if the current devices can be networked together (at least not yet), but such personal climate monitoring tools might potentially help provide facilities or HR managers with constant updates from employee users about their working conditions.