By Douglas Main
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An invisible killer had infiltrated Sto-Rox High School.
When workers installed a cell tower on top of the school outside Pittsburgh, no one realized the exhaust spewed by its diesel generator was being sucked into the building’s ventilation system and inhaled by everyone inside. This is stuff you really do not want in your teen’s homeroom: Diesel fumes contain particulate matter and chemicals like benzene and arsenic, which in the long term increase the risk of lung cancer and in the short term cause breathing problems and dull the mind. But lucky for the Sto-Rox students, they had Joe Krajcovic—and a Speck.
Krajcovic had installed this new device in his science classroom as a school project. The Speck measures airborne particulate pollution, which increases the risk for and exacerbates symptoms of respiratory problems like asthma. Krajcovic’s class was analyzing the data gathered by the sensor to learn about indoor air quality when they noticed spikes in particle levels every few hours. Those coincided with the generator’s daily schedule: Whenever it kicked on to power the tower’s battery, particulate pollution increased, says Speck developer Illah Nourbakhsh, a robotics researcher at nearby Carnegie Mellon University. After parsing this unnerving data, Krajcovic filed a grievance, and the tower was moved.
Your life depends on good air. Every year, air pollution causes the premature deaths of between 5.5 million and 7 million people, making it more deadly than HIV, traffic accidents and diabetes combined. The majority of these deaths—about 4 million—are caused by indoor air pollution, primarily in developing countries. But it takes a toll in developed countries as well. In Europe, for example, air pollution shortens the average life expectancy by nearly one year. Worldwide, more than 80 percent of people living in urban areas breathe air that exceeds pollution limits advised by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Particulate matter is the prime villain. The most lethal are the smallest particles (also known as PM2.5, for particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter, about one-third the diameter of a red blood cell), which are produced by combustion and household activities like cooking. These specks can get deep into the lungs, tarring the airways and weathering the heart, disrupting its ability to beat properly: Many studies have linked exposure to PM2.5 with heart attacks, cardiac arrhythmias, strokes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, worsened symptoms of asthma and an increased risk of respiratory illness. Worldwide, particulate matter contributes to about 800,000 premature deaths each year, according to the WHO, making it the 13th leading cause of death worldwide. Other pollutants also cause major problems, especially indoors—radon, a gas produced naturally in the Earth, is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S., and additional gases like carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) cause myriad health effects.
Poisonous indoor air is almost completely ignored by the press, the public and those who bankroll scientific research—it gets about 100 times less research funding than outdoor air, even though the average American spends about 90 percent of the time inside. “Outdoor air is a political hot topic,” but it means less for public health than indoor air, says Jan Sundell, a researcher at the Technical University of Denmark. “You get sick due to indoor air. You die due to indoor air.”
While the federal government has a nationwide network of sensors perched atop towers that sniff for particulate matter, these cost around $100,000 each and aren’t exactly mobile—there’s simply no way the program could be expanded into schools, homes and offices, even if we could overcome all the red tape necessary for that to happen.
The Speck, however, costs $150 and is the size of an alarm clock. It’s just one example of a new generation of devices that measure air quality, many of which are priced at $200 or less and can quantify levels of particulate matter, VOCs, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and other gases. Although many of these devices aren’t yet 100 percent accurate (and certainly aren’t as precise as the fed’s monitors), they have already allowed people to improve the air they breathe in ways that would’ve been impossible even a few years back.