The crowdsourced clean air revolution

Climate Economy

The crowdsourced clean air revolution

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The rise of household air quality monitors is helping people see what lurks in the air they breathe. Will they help halt climate change? 

When Liam Bates moved to Beijing from Canada, he expected dirty air. What he had not expected were the columns of smog that closed roads and schools and all but erased the sun.

“Some days it would be noon and basically dark outside,” recalls Bates. 

The 31-year old Swiss film producer had intended to use the Chinese as a base for shooting trips to exotic corners of Asia. But after his wife Jessica Lam joined him in 2014 and her childhood asthma attacks returned in force, Bates decided to focus on the air in his own home. The same year, a UC Berkeley study linked China’s air pollution to 1.6 million annual deaths

“The fact that the pollution was so bad, but also so invisible, was really worrying,”  he says. “But it was also an interesting challenge.”

Rising to that challenge, the couple eventually launched Kaiterra, a company that pioneered small, affordable household and office air quality monitors. When they began, examining a home’s air quality index (AQI) required expensive, laboratory-grade instruments. They emerged with the Kaiterra Laser Egg—a sleek, white device the size of a coffee mug. The device makes checking home air pollution as easy as glancing at the clock. 

“The fact that the pollution was so bad, but also so invisible, was really worrying,”  he says. “But it was also an interesting challenge.”

Not surprisingly, the path from filmmaker to air quality entrepreneur was as opaque as Beijing’s atmosphere. Bates asked around and took the obvious step: an online search. Normally he would have been able to source all kinds of information from university and government websites, even phone apps. Instead, he found nothing.

By coincidence, his timing was off. The Chinese government had shut down all online access to any information related to climate and air quality in Beijing. 

Bates had started his air quality research in November 2014, just before Beijing was scheduled to host the APEC summit, a gathering which that year included Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin. In late October, the government had launched an all-out effort to temporarily arrest its legendary pollution: factories were closed, cars banned for certain periods. Yet by November, according to the WHO, pollution levels in the city were still six times the acceptable level. So the government closed off access to all climate related information. 

In his frustration, Bates took the natural next step: turning to the U.S. embassy, he found a plethora of the up-to-date information he normally would have found online

Then he sought out contacts in the scientific community, until one loaned him a laboratory scanner, an “expensive thing with cables and an antenna coming out of it,” he says. “I was borrowing various friends’ air purifiers and wondering, ‘Is this one working better than that one?’ It turned into a weekend hobby.” 

Bates began to wonder if air monitoring technology could be miniaturized and mass produced. He and Lam decided they ought to try. They began assembling programmers and engineers, canvassing factories and working their way through the Chinese bureaucracy.  

Six years later, Kaiterra remains an industry leader with offices in both Beijing and New Delhi. It has begun developing ways to use the data from tens of thousands of devices in homes and offices around the world to help scientists and policymakers understand, and ultimately solve, their local air pollution. 

Air aware

Kaiterra was one of the first producers of home air quality monitors, but it was by no means the last. As new brands entered the space, the Wirecutter review platform published a ranking of air quality monitors in 2019. The latest version of the Laser Egg (which measures CO2 as well as particulate matter) took the number one spot, but it shared the ranking with brands like Temptop, Awair and IQAir, whose affordable, plug-in or rechargable AQI monitors are gaining traction in both Asian and Western markets. 

 

Kaiterra’s Laser Egg. Photo by Kaiterra.


“It has only been in the last few years that we have available, affordable air quality monitors,” explains Bill Magavern, policy director for the California-based
Coalition for Clean Air. He says the trend is “democratizing” the science of air quality monitoring, which until recently was only available to government agencies and large corporations. “Now schools, individuals, smaller companies can install one of these low cost sensors.”

But these consumer-grade devices have limits. Most only detect particulate matter, i.e. microscopic, airborne particles of dust, smoke and other substances, and not other harmful substances, like sulfur dioxide or ozone. Furthermore, the industry has very little government  regulation or quality control. 

“There are cases of people suing governments. In London, a few years ago there was a young girl who died, and it was attributed to air pollution.”

“But the particulate sensors are one good way for people to find out what’s happening in real time in your own neighborhood,” Magavern explains. He says that even a small air quality snapshot might be enough to make someone interested in the issue of air pollution and, eventually, demand change. 

 “Especially in Europe in the past few years, there has been a lot of awareness,” explains Bates. “There are cases of people suing governments. In London, a few years ago there was a young girl who died, and it was attributed to air pollution.” That case involved a nine-year-old girl who died from an asthma attack in 2013. Last year, the UK’s High Court ordered an investigation after new evidence suggested pollution around the girl’s home may have caused her death. 

Yet while people are clamoring for cleaner air, governments are still struggling to understand the causes of their own air pollution—let alone fix it. 

Policy in a haze

The origins of air pollution are an impossible tangle of human activity, weather patterns, and geography. Airbourne filth can blow in from  thousands of miles away; NASA monitoring showed smoke from Australia’s devastating bushfires, loaded with toxic PM2.5, drifting over South America. Although Southern California did see cleaner air at the start of the Covid-19 lockdown, an NPR investigation revealed that the change had more to do with weather than traffic, and pollution soon returned to near-normal levels. 

“In California, our biggest cause of air pollution is heavy duty engines,” Magavern says. “The truck traffic did not go down very much, and you have oil tankers anchored off the coast…There are enormous seaports in Los Angeles and Long Beach, there are huge container ships that dock at those ports, and they burn diesel.”

Magavern said experts didn’t find California’s lack of a Covid-19 pollution drop particularly surprising. With a network of more than 4000 ambient monitors and a small army of mathematicians, scientists and engineers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency leads the world in air quality data and analysis. 

With a network of more than 4000 ambient monitors and a small army of mathematicians, scientists and engineers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency leads the world in air quality data and analysis. 

But many other governments remain in the fog. In 2016, New Delhi tried to curtail its notorious smog by banning half of all registered vehicles from the roads on a given day. When the trial period ended, a study by the journalism network IndiaSpend found that pollution levels had actually risen by 15 percent. In 2017, Seoul tried to reduce its own air pollution through free public transit, with similar results

For Bates, one solution is to crowd-source data from the growing number of household AQI monitors.  “We want to actually be able to reduce air pollution by doing things like using this data to work with the Korean government to help them make policies,” he says. 

Indeed, Kaiterra is working with Seoul, South Korea to develop a system that uses data from the Laser Egg and Kaiterra’s commercial product, the SenseEdge, to help crack the pollution code. “If you see hot spots in pollution activity, you can check and see if there’s an industrial area there. Or if the air is more polluted when the wind is blowing from the south, then you can see if there is something in the south that is causing it.” 

A global monitor 

In the meantime, Kaiterra is using this crowd-sourced data, combined with satellite imaging and local government monitoring, to develop a live map showing real-time global air quality down to the square kilometer. 

Bates shows me a beta version of the map. The worst pollution (shown by bright red and yellow splotches) were concentrated in China, India and the Middle East. Surprisingly, the United States displayed more green than almost all of its industrialized peers. 

The origins of America’s clean air fixation go and go  back to the 1960s, when Los Angeles, not Beijing, was the smog capital of the globe. Public outcry eventually led to the 1970 Clean Air Act, a landmark piece of legislation that required the newly-formed Environmental Protection Agency to regulate emissions that “endanger public health and welfare.” Later, the George H. W. Bush administration used the Act to tackle acid rain, leading to a 71% drop in sulfur dioxide levels. Today, EPA uses it to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and fight human-caused climate change.

“It’s hard to make people care about climate change because it’s so far off and difficult to grasp. But what is easier to grasp is, ‘I’m going to die and my children are going to die.’”

“It’s hard to make people care about climate change because it’s so far off and difficult to grasp. But what is easier to grasp is, ‘I’m going to die and my children are going to die,’” Bates says. 

COVID-19 is a case-in-point. Factories have closed, people are staying off the roads, and photos are emerging of clear, blue skies over Beijing and the Himalayas visible from Delhi for the first time in 30 years. Meanwhile, Kaiterra has seen a spike in sales, even though (as far as we know) the spread of the coronavirus has nothing to do with AQI. People are simply more worried about getting sick, and it is making them more worried about the air they breathe. 

 “We think, and we hope, that when people see a spike in air pollution, they will ask, ‘Why is this happening?’ and call for change,” Magavern says.  

Bates says China has upped its air monitoring game since the days when he was fiddling with the cables on his borrowed laboratory scanner. Throughout  the world, people are beginning to check the afternoon AQI reading before going for a jog or taking their dog to the park. 

As they  worry about the future of their air, they just might begin to think about the future of their climate.

 

Written by

Jared Downing

Jared Downing is a journalist, podcaster, and satirist based in Boston with experience in Southeast Asia and Birmingham, Alabama. Before C&C, he spent five years in Yangon, Myanmar, producing the human rights podcast Doh Athan and producing features, columns, and cartoons for Frontier Myanmar, that country's leading English language magazine. Prior to that, he was a freelance writer in Birmingham Alabama, focusing on city culture and social justice.