As low-cost air quality sensors become more technologically advanced and readily available, U.S. communities and lawmakers are debating how the data they collect should be used to protect people from air pollution.

“There is an unprecedented level of air quality data being collected today,” said Bill Obermann, air program supervisor at Denver’s Department of Public Health and Environment, at a Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing last week. “The time is now for clearly communicating what level of data quality is acceptable for use in agency decision-making and regulatory settings.”

Low-cost sensors differ considerably from the more accurate but much more expensive monitors currently used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state and local agencies to implement the Clean Air Act. While low-cost air sensors can go for as little as $100 each and typically cost less than $2,500, regulatory ambient air monitors can come with a price tag of up to $50,000, according to the EPA.

Denver is one of the local governments taking advantage of these easier-to-access sensors by operating them at 33 schools to monitor the levels of air pollution known as PM 2.5, which can lead to various health issues by deeply penetrating the lungs and entering the bloodstream. The real-time data is displayed in school lobbies, and Obermann said that it has provided an opportunity to educate the community, especially school nurses, about how to protect themselves and others when air quality is low — an increasing concern as climate change fuels more wildfires in the West. The city is planning on expanding the “Love My Air” program to local clinics in the next two years, bringing these locations interactive kiosks with information about air quality and public health.

Recent federal investments will bring even more of this technology to U.S. communities. In 2022, the EPA announced over $53 million in grants for 132 community air monitoring projects, most of which plan on using low-cost air sensors, said Omar Hammad, Congressional Research Service environmental policy analyst, at the Senate committee hearing.

Read the full article about air quality data by Ysabelle Kempe at Smart Cities Dive.