The air we breathe

I grew up in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the 1970s, when gasoline was leaded (thus damaging brains and increasing crime), and pollution from cars and industry much worse than it is today. (Read about changes in LA from the 70s, improvements for kids since the 90s, SF’s improvements since the 60s, and the recent dangers of inhaling smoke from wildfires.)

As a water economist, I am well aware of the advantages of clean water, which gives me a similar respect for clean air. The problem is that it’s hard to see air or water pollution, which is why I support visualizing technology. 

In the case of water, we’re still waiting, but the technology* for measuring, viewing and recording air quality is improving rapidly, which makes it more likely that average people will change their habits and push for policy changes that can be seen on their devices. (Here’s a great podcast on how residents of a poor area near San Francisco dramatically improved their air quality. Pollution in London’s Tube is 30x street levels, so maybe it’s time to bike?)

Delivery scooter in Bangkok market alley

With that preamble out of the way, let me tell you about the Air Tricorder (!) I bought for €70 in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

As you can see, it’s a plastic box with fans and sensors inside that gives real time measures of the Air Quality Index (AQI) that combines measures for PM2.5, PM10 and NOx. (This video shows how quality changes as a freight train rolls through Utrecht’s central station.) The drawbacks of the Tricorder is that it does not record geo-tagged data, which means that you need to stop often and manually correlate location and time with the AQI.**

What I found to be very interesting was how AQI would change in various places, sometimes counterintuitively.

First is the fact that AQI in an alley may be lower than on a busy street, either because scooters drive in the alleys or people are cooking over charcoal (!!) in the alley. (The Tricorder doesn’t go above 500, which is labeled “ludicrous.) Those cooking habits — along with burning wood in the fireplace or smoking indoors — explain why indoor air pollution is linked to 4,000 deaths per day, worldwide.

Hazardous air INSIDE the theatre?

Second, polluted air doesn’t just “stay outside,” and it can even be worse than outside if inside air is not circulated or filtered (see photo). China’s leaders know this, which is why they have dozens of machines scrubbing the air of their homes and workplaces in polluted Beijing.*** 

Third, the majority of pollution comes from bad practices (burning coal) but also old, outdated and poorly maintained machines and factories. Various countries regulate this issue by banning certain practices or older models of cars, scooters, trucks and so forth, but poor/corrupt countries do not have or enforce these rules, which means that their citizens die younger and children suffer brain damage. Is that policy pro-poor? Probably not, given that their richer neighbors use more energy and travel more

My one-handed conclusion is that you should check your personal air quality and speak out for policies and practices that will improve it.

* Note that I am talking about mobile or personal devices. You can easily get quality measurements from fixed stations (US or EU), but that information is less personal (and thus less actionable) because it’s not about you here and now.

** I was super excited to buy a Flow device that would send real time data to my smart phone, but the €180 device bricked itself when I tried to share it with my GF’s phone. (Flow was funded in late 2018 via Kickstarter.) Two weeks later, I am still waiting for a solution. Their tech support seems to be struggling. I’ll update this post if get a working device (or my money back).

***  This famous twitter account, set up by the US Dept of State in 2008 — back when we were great — forced Chinese leaders to engage with the problem.

Addendum (28 Feb): Living with Bangkok’s dirty air

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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