Per the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American spends 90% of their time indoors.
At the same time, when we think of citizen science, our mind’s eye often pictures the great outdoors: wide expanses of open space, jutting mountains, birds in trees, and frogs sitting near meandering streams. In part, that’s due to a perception that science takes place outdoors. Also, many of us want to spend more time there, so when we get excited about a project, we tend to migrate towards counting birds, or reporting when the first flowers bud and open in our back yards.
In the end, it’s important for us to understand our normal environment. That would seem to put a significant importance in understanding our indoor air quality where we live, work, and play.
In most places in America, outdoor air quality is actually very good. Certainly, in the densest of urban areas with tall buildings, lots of tunnels, and larger than normal vehicle traffic, we may see a degradation of outdoor air quality. Sometimes this is visible, and sometimes its only measurable with sensors and instruments.
Outside of those urban areas though, we tend to see very good air. It’s breathable, and primarily healthy. That’s not to say there’s nothing to be concerned about in our outdoor environments. In fact, there are a few Citizen Science projects out there already looking into outdoor air quality. Take as an example the work being done by citizen scientists with AirCasting.
What the emphasis on outdoor air quality sampling does is simply imply that most of us think about air quality in perhaps a backwards sense We should really be looking indoors for the first signs of trouble. After all, the air in our homes, offices, and factories all originates outdoors.
The systems we have for circulation, climate control, and ventilation in buildings all rely upon fresh sources of air being pulled into our spaces from outside. The processes affecting that air once it’s inside can create some of our most problematic air quality issues. These days, new sensors and instruments exist that can help us understand those processes and their effects on our health and well being.
Let’s look initially at carbon monoxide in particular.
Carbon monoxide is produced by the incomplete burning of materials. It’s colorless, odorless, and it exists just about everywhere. Many states now have laws about carbon monoxide detectors, and their placement in homes, hotels, and other places of business. In part though, those regulations aren’t set up in such a way that tell the whole story of the carbon monoxide problem.
For example, a carbon monoxide detector that you would buy in a home improvement store and install in your home will alert you to a problem in one of two ways, most likely:
1.) At somewhere between 70 to 150 parts per million, the average household detector will alarm after 60 to 240 minutes of exposure.
2.) At 150 to 400 parts per million, the alarm is prescribed to alarm at 10 to 50 minutes of exposure.
For most healthy people, this is enough of an alert to prevent unconsciousness, and potentially death. That’s specifically the purpose of these alarms. To that end, they are very valuable, and prevent disastrous situations.
At the same time, many global environmental agencies would indicate that long term exposure to much, much lower levels of carbon monoxide has negative health effects. In particular, asthmatics, those with heart conditions, and potentially pregnant women shouldn’t be exposed to more than 10 parts per million for any length of time.
So standard alarms won’t help us understand those damaging situations. So here’s an opportunity for concerned Citizen Scientists to use modern sensors to have a positive impact. It’s simple and relatively affordable for anyone to purchase a sensor that will tell them exact amounts of carbon monoxide in their indoor air at all times, not simply when potentially critical amounts are present.
There are many devices on the market that display carbon monoxide levels on a digital readout, in real time. To be sure, even 10 parts per million isn’t common place, and would generally warn us that a larger problem is present. At the same time, creating a larger understanding of what carbon monoxide levels exist in certain types of places would benefit indoor air quality scientists. It would be great to see these kinds of studies being done, so we can develop a sounder policy and strategy on how it should be measured, and where.
1. Are CO levels different in certain types of businesses?
2. What are CO levels like in hotel rooms near heated indoor pools, as opposed to those without such amenities?
3. What time of year do we see the biggest spikes in indoor carbon monoxide levels?
4. In general, are standard CO alarms doing enough to maintain good indoor air quality?
Many of us have theories about all of the above, but collecting data from people on a daily basis, all over the world, from different walks of life, would go a long way towards a deeper understanding.
Indoor air quality doesn’t begin and end with carbon monoxide. While it’s a “high profile” measurement, other kinds of sensors are now readily available that measure other pollutants. More and more types of sensors are entering the marketplace each year that will assist citizen scientists and their research partners in understanding other things, such as radon, radiation, Volatile Organic Compounds and particulates, molds, and more. In the end, it will benefit everyone to spend some time understanding all kinds of air quality: indoor and out.
So what can you do? Lots of things!
First step would be to acquire a carbon monoxide detector that has a real time digital readout. (You can try out tools like SensorDrone that detect multiple variables like gas, light, humidity, etc.) You’ll want to know what carbon monoxide levels are in places you spend the most time. Then, start recording levels at different places you go. Make a journal that describes both the levels of CO in various areas, and why you think CO might be present.
Some of the places you will want to check:
Any place using a heater of some sort.
Anywhere where engines are running in enclosed spaces.
Indoor swimming pools.
All of these types of places have the possibility of having higher than normal carbon monoxide concentrations.
If we find a place with abnormally high readings, such as anything over 5 PPM on a regular basis, let them know. Never assume a business understands what their day to day operations are doing to indoor air quality.
It’s one of the reasons citizen science can help with this kind of study. There is a real lack of awareness when it comes to carbon monoxide, essentially since everyone tends to feel they are safe in areas that have alarms.
By knowing more about carbon monoxide, you can help educate everyone around you. And you can help air quality scientists do real studies that promote good standards.
90% of your life is spent indoors. We need to spend more time thinking about it. With modern sensor technology, you can play a huge role in getting more people thinking about it.
Kevin Websteris an outdoors-man, writer, and marketer. He currently is the Sales and Marketing Manager at Sensorcon in Buffalo, NY. His interests are science, logic, grammar, and music. The order of those importances varies.