Citizen scientists track N.B. air pollution

·4 min read
The home sensors are about the size of a grapefruit, says Melanie Langille of the New Brunswick Lung Association. (Submitted by Melanie Langille - image credit)
The home sensors are about the size of a grapefruit, says Melanie Langille of the New Brunswick Lung Association. (Submitted by Melanie Langille - image credit)

About two dozen New Brunswick households are now taking part in a national pilot project to help Environment and Climate Change Canada better monitor air quality.

They have been given sensors to install outside their homes that gauge the amount of small pollution particles in the air, from things like wildfires and burning home heating or engine fuels, said Melanie Langille, president and CEO of the New Brunswick Lung Association.

The group is a partner in the project, which began two years ago.

Air quality is especially important to people with conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said the association. And long-term exposure to air pollutants can increase the risk of lung and heart disease and cancers.

"Knowing your local air quality can help with the daily management of these health conditions, and even give back a sense of control," the group said on its website.

A real-time picture of air quality

Data from the sensors is fed continuously to the project website, said Langille, so you can see in real time what the air quality is like in the area.

In general, New Brunswickers enjoy good air quality, she said, but particulate matter has increased over time, along with the number of people driving cars or burning fuel to heat their homes in winter, or to power it during electrical system outages.

Climate change is expected to make a further contribution. Sensors picked up "quite a bit of an impact," last July, she said, when wildfire smoke blew in from Western Canada. Another "intense" wildfire season is expected this year.

Submitted by Melanie Langille
Submitted by Melanie Langille

One thing noticed from sensor data last winter, said Langille, is that pollution from home heating tends to be worse in the early morning and clears up later in the day.

The project monitors also noticed pockets of localized pollution that are caused by things like lighting a fire on a cold day or having a neighbour who burns wood.

"We're not seeing any really concentrated areas that are consistently of concern," she said. "It's just depending on what the folks in that neighborhood are doing at that time."

Usefulness of data to be assessed

Federal scientists will continue to gather data for about the next year, said Lucy Chisholm, a health and air quality meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Then they'll evaluate its usefulness.

It may end up being factored into the air-quality health index, a warning system now part of its weather forecasts.

This project was possible, said Chisholm, thanks to the availability of low-cost sensor technology. Many people around the world have the type of sensors being employed, she said, and they've shown to be useful at measuring particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter.

WeatherCAN
WeatherCAN

"These sensors are less accurate than regulatory monitors that are used to get information on things like industrial emissions," she emphasized, but they may be good enough for health forecasts, and they allow measurements to be taken in new locations.

"What we're trying to do here is track pollution plumes for a forecast to tell people where and when the AQHI will be what value."

The citizen science approach to the pilot is better than just sticking sensors on public buildings, she said, because air quality scientists can engage with weather watchers about their experience and understanding of air quality and to get more information about the environment.

One science question they will be looking at, she said, is differences in air quality in urban versus rural areas.

They'll also capture data on transported plumes, such as those from forest fires. That smoke doesn't always make its way to ground levels, said Chisholm, but having observations from the sensors when it does is helpful.

WeatherCAN
WeatherCAN

There aren't enough sensors for everyone who wants one, said Chisholm.

She expects another five will be distributed this summer.

"We're really trying to capture those who are going to be active with the sensor but also in the locations we think would be appropriate to get the data we need."

Some of the areas not covered yet are central and western parts of the province, said Langille.

Technically, the only requirements to take part in the project, she said, are an electrical outlet and a strong Wi-Fi connection.

"I have mine strapped with wire ties to a bird feeder post," she said.

She's seen others screwed onto the side of a house or shed.

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