Dirty Air Monitors: Are they telling us the whole truth?

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC 4 News) – There’s a new player in the air monitoring that’s taking place along the Wasatch Front. The group PurpleAir.org has placed more than two dozen laser counting monitors in Northern Utah to attempt to evaluate what’s really in our air. People have been talking about PurpleAir’s monitors and why they report drastically higher numbers than what the Utah Division of Air Quality is reporting.
 
10-year-old Indy Debirk doesn’t go anywhere without her emergency bag. At just 18 months old Indy was diagnosed with asthma.
 
Indy’s mother Amber Debirk said, “We just thought that she has a really bad cold and ended up in the emergency room at Primary Children’s Hospital one night and ended up in the ICU for a week.”
 
It wasn’t until a couple years later that Indy’s parents realized it was the air in their Sugar House neighborhood that was making their child sick. Debirk said, “We thought we were doing the right thing, we’re biking, we’re walking, we’re doing more for the environment the right way but in a sense we were really hurting ourselves.”
 
So when Indy was four the Debirks moved to a neighborhood with higher elevation and cleaner air, and they say they’ve seen a difference with much fewer emergency breathing treatments. Bill Debirk said, “We were having to do them probably once a month at least and we’re down to maybe one or two an entire season now.”
 
That doesn’t mean Indy is in the clear, the Debirks watch the air quality very closely and rely on the Division of Air Quality’s air monitoring app to know when it’s safe for her to go outside. “Today we’re at the orange day which is…anything orange is bad for Indy and anybody else like her to play outside,” said Debirk.
 
Still the Debirks wonder the accuracy of the DAQ air monitors. Could the air quality actually be worse? “I always wonder how things are measured.”
 
The Debirks aren’t alone. Meet Adrian Dybwad. “When you look at the air and it’s really brown and the state monitors are telling us it was green, we were a bit confused so we wanted to have an alternative perspective on it.”
 
Dybwad is the founder of PurpleAir.org. A developer by trade, he wanted to know for himself what was in the air. So he started researching environmental monitors and found a particle counter that he thought could do the job.
 
“This is the actually a laser counter which has got a fan on the back and it sucks air through from the hole in the front. The dust, in the air, will go past the laser and there’s a photodiode which picks up any of the laser reflected from the particles and depending on the type of signal that the diode is picking up it will mean that the particle is bigger or smaller and it basically counts the pulses that come out of that,” explained Dybwad.
        
Dybwad says the size of the particle helps determine what kind of pollutant it is. “That will include what’s called pm 2.5 Which is particles that are caused by exhaust from vehicles, from wood smoke, burning all sorts of different types of smoke from cigarette smoke to bigger dust particles.”
 
Purple Air has monitors all along the Wasatch Front. “We’ve got 25 right now from Springville all the way up to Mountain Green.”
 
On average the monitors read well above what the DAQ monitors are reporting. On the day we were interviewing Dybwad the pm 2.5 on Purple Air’s monitors read three times higher as the DAQ monitors – at around 60 micrograms.
 
Dybwad admitted, “The true answer is that it could be somewhere in between the two, like ours might be reading high, there’s might be reading low.”
 
While that may be true, the Division of Air Quality says their monitors test the air in an entirely different way than Purple Air’s monitors; rather than counting particles, the DAQ weighs them.
 
Division of Air Quality’s Executive Director Bryce Bird explained, “So the health standard is actually a weighted standard, so it’s micrograms of weight per cubic meter of air. These draw air through here collect it on a filter and produce a result in those micrograms per cubic meter. The laser samplers are looking at the optical characteristics of particles and then using math to try to decide what the mass is.”
 
Dybwad admits the math on his monitors might be wrong which is why he’s having researchers at the University of Utah and some in California testing their accuracy. “If at the end of all the tests they will tell us those sensors are reading 30% high or 10% high or whatever it might be, we will modify the graphs,” said Dybwad. “We’re not interested in just creating a sensation for the sake of creating a sensation. We want to find out what actually is going on and we want to do it in a way that is consistent, where each senor of ours is tested before we put it out.”
 
Even if Purple Air’s monitors are reading high, they can still serve a very important purpose. “The more sensors we have the more data we can collect and the more of an image we can paint about where the pollution comes from, where it’s going where it pools, how long it stays around for,” explained Dybwad. “So we call it high resolution monitoring. You know we want to get a detailed image of exactly where the pollution moves, how it moves.” 
         
Purple Air is adding more monitors every day, helping build a better picture of what our air quality across the state looks like, which even the DAQ admits is valuable information.
 
“It doesn’t meet the same quality assurance requirements that these monitors have, but it does provide good relative information from high spots to low spots, high days to low days that could then be used to look at do we need to establish a full time monitor there to understand if there’s an ongoing need,” said Bird.
 
Every one can agree the more monitors the better. Because people like Indy rely on the most accurate information to make important decisions about their health.
 
The DAQ is currently asking the state legislature for $2.2 million to replace existing equipment and to build two new monitoring stations; one in Herriman and one in Draper. Purple Air is also installing monitors. They’re looking for volunteers especially in the areas of West Jordan, Tooele and in areas along Oquirrhs. 
 
For more information log on to: http://www.purpleair.org.

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