Public Lab Wiki documentation

Air Quality

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Outdoor air pollution, in the most extreme cases, can be immediately identified even without any special training. It casts a haze over cities, collects on streets and buildings, and provides dramatic fodder for the news. But while high drama is often a prerequisite for news about air quality to be reported, the real story is the health impacts that occur even when the air isn't thick enough to see.

What is air pollution and who’s affected by it?

Some common outdoor air pollutants are largely invisible gases, such as ground-level ozone, nitrogen dioxide, and volatile organic compounds. Other pollutants, such as particulate matter, are made up of solid particles and liquid droplets mixing in the air. Several pollutants can combine to make more familiar and obvious forms of air pollution, like smog. The sources of air pollution are varied, ranging from motor vehicle exhaust to wildfires to petrochemical plants. And the presence of pollutants in the air changes over space and time.

Unhealthy air has the potential to affect anyone, but people who live and work closest to major sources of air pollution experience the most severe health impacts. Outdoor air pollution and its effects on the human body cause over 4 million deaths a year worldwide [1], with fine particulate matter alone leading to more than 3.2 million premature deaths [2]. In October 2013, the World Health Organization announced they are considering particulate matter, a major component of both outdoor and indoor air pollution, as a Group 1 carcinogen along with tobacco smoke and asbestos.

This page is a place to collect and organize resources on investigating air pollution. Visit the air quality tag page to see the latest community posts about air quality on Public Lab, and get updates on this topic by subscribing:

Subscribe to air quality

Sources: [1] WHO resources on ambient air pollution. [2] Brauer et al. 2012.

Lead image from @eustatic's work

On this page you can:
See community stories and projects on air quality

Join the conversation
  • Ask a question, answer a question, or follow future questions on air quality
  • Post an issue brief that describes your local concern related to air quality
Research air quality Learn about regulations, policies, and advocacy related to air quality

Find further reading and resources on air quality

See what’s still unknown and next step challenges in air quality monitoring

Community stories and projects


Image: @mollydanielsson

How have different communities approached their local air quality concerns?

Air quality projects

Public Lab community projects tagged with air-quality-projects will appear here

Title Updated Version Views Likes
VVAMP almost 3 years ago by denissebn_06 34 4,753 6
The Sand Sentinel Program over 3 years ago by stevie 24 3,771 2
Bucket Monitor over 3 years ago by kgradow1 2 499 0
Orangetown Aluf over 4 years ago by stevie 5 551 1
Air Quality Class over 5 years ago by warren 60 691 3
Air Column Monitor over 11 years ago by liz 10 4,515 1
Roomba indoor air quality mapping almost 13 years ago by warren 1 1,351 2

Particle sensor projects

Public Lab has initiated a Particle Sensing Project focused primarily on silica. This project overlaps with and includes the DustDuino and is coordinated on the Air-Quality Google Group.

A variety of particle sensors have been posted on the site:

Title Updated Version Views Likes
DustDuino over 3 years ago by bhamster 27 7,415 7
Simple Air Sensor over 3 years ago by a1ahna 47 3,798 7
PurpleAir over 4 years ago by joyofsoy 16 10,148 2
MiniVol TAS Particulate Matter Monitor about 5 years ago by Bronwen 45 3,791 1
MACA about 6 years ago by nanocastro 4 829 5
pDR-1500 about 7 years ago by mathew 6 1,348 2

More community projects and stories

  • Remembering Tonawanda: Public Lab blog post by @kgradow1 and @jjcreedon on the incredible organizing and community science for cleaner air in Tonawanda, New York.
  • South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA): on this page, you’ll find videos of Desmond D'sa describing how SDCEA’s community organizing around bucket air monitors gave rise to new air quality legislation in South Africa.
  • Community Observation Networks for Air (CONA): out of New Zealand, @guolivar is building and using lower-cost air sensors to monitor local air quality and engage communities in air quality research.
  • Modeling Environmental Health Impacts of I-10 to Engage Residents and Decision Makers: out of New Orleans, Louisiana, this project with the Thriving Earth Exchange included air monitoring with low-cost sensors to connect environmental data and health impacts near the high-traffic I-10 corridor.
  • Breathe Project: brings together people who work on and are impacted by air pollution to research and map air quality in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, and beyond.
  • Imperial IVAN: out of Imperial Valley, California, this community-based monitoring network and its successful organizing were the model for state legislation aiming to reduce air pollution in the most impacted communities.

Latest community stories

Join the conversation


Image: @mollydanielsson

Questions from the community

  • See if other community members are asking questions like yours
  • Ask a question so other community members can offer support
  • Sign up below to be notified when someone asks an air quality question

Title Author Updated Likes Comments
Looking for recommendations of how to obtain air quality samples around a fracked gas compressor station @SBucic about 2 years ago 3
Does this plume count as a violation under Method 9 Opacity? (photos) @eustatic over 2 years ago 3
What are some good trouble shooting tips for installing/maintaining a PurpleAir? @stevie over 2 years ago 4
Does keeping a bucket sample cold extend the time you have to get it to a lab for testing? @stevie over 2 years ago 1
What is the most accurate low-cost VOC monitoring method? @tylerknight over 2 years ago 3
How to find/request an air emissions permit for a facility in Quebec? @Fleer over 2 years ago 1
How long do you need to co-locate an air quality tool to get what you need to calibrate or "ground truth" another tool? @stevie over 2 years ago 5
Is there an easy way (app?) to find my elevation above sea level? @stevie over 2 years ago 3
What are health and environmental concerns for sewage smell in a home? @stevie over 2 years ago 3
What are ways to alert residents to air quality concerns without using cell phones or wifi? @bhamster over 2 years ago 2
What are some of the first things you do with air quality monitoring data to better understand it? @bhamster over 2 years ago 7
What are ways to monitor for ethylene oxide? @stevie almost 3 years ago 1
What are air quality indicators you should watch for around a landfill that indicate you should take a grab sample? @stevie almost 3 years ago 3
Is there a correlation between humidity and particulates in the air? @sarasage almost 3 years ago 3
How to connect an anemometer to an air particulate monitor? @crispinpierce almost 3 years ago 0
How subsurface gasses migrate and what allows them to dissipate? Landfill gasses @denissebn_06 about 3 years ago 4
HOW do i find testing for air quality in my home - specifically for silica? @MaryBandy over 3 years ago 2
What are some affordable methods of air quality monitoring in New Orleans? @purl over 3 years ago 4
Chevron is up for a permit renewal again (under title 5 of the Clean Air Act), we have a 4800 page report on the company, how can we get through it and pull out the valuable info? @stevie over 3 years ago 20
What are your experiences using low-cost VOC sensors outdoors? And other questions about accuracy. @bhamster over 3 years ago 4
Can a successful heavy metal analysis using moss samples be designed for community partners? @stevie almost 4 years ago 2
For the Bucket Monitor, how many tedlar bags do you need per-sampling? @mimiss almost 4 years ago 2
What causes shimmering air above flares? @kgradow1 about 4 years ago 4
Where is non-compliance reported for fencline monitoring? @A_SCH about 4 years ago 1

Post an Issue Brief

Share a local concern or issue about air quality and get support from the Public Lab community by writing and posting an Issue Brief. Visit “Write an Issue Brief” to find information on what an issue brief is, see examples, and learn how to write one.

Research air quality


Image: @mollydanielsson

Planning and carrying out a community air quality study can seem daunting. Be reassured that many other community groups have planned and done air quality studies, and that the Public Lab community is here to support you. At any time, you can ask questions, start an issue brief with any amount of information you have, or start documenting your project, and gather input from other Public Lab members.

Getting ready

Here are some resources that might help you get started with a community air monitoring project.

Posts about gathering with community

See how other communities have investigated their local air

Many community groups have studied local air quality in their neighborhoods and shared their extensive knowledge and experiences in publicly-available written guides. @kgradow1 has compiled a handy short list of community air guides here, and explained the advantages and limitations of each guide. Much of the more general guidance on this page was collected from these community air guides.

A particularly comprehensive how-to guide is the Guidebook for Developing a Community Air Monitoring Network: Steps, Lessons, and Recommendations from the Imperial County Community Air Monitoring Project. It covers community engagement, choosing tools and software, determining monitoring sites, and analyzing data.

Deciding what to monitor

What pollutants might be in the air near you?

Considering common sources of air pollutants can help you determine which pollutants might be in your community.

General sources: the buttons below list some examples of human activities, industries, and natural sources. Click the buttons to see common air pollutants these sources use or produce.

Oil and gas production, refining, storage; oil- and coal-fired power plants
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs); “BTEX” VOCs benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene, especially associated with natural gas; formaldehyde associated with natural gas compressor stations
  • Methane
  • Sulfur compounds
  • Nitrogen oxides (NOx)
  • Particulate matter (PM)
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)

Chemical manufacturing, commercial manufacturing, petrochemical plants
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), especially ethylene oxide, benzene, formaldehyde
  • Nitrogen oxides (NOx)
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)

  • Dust / particulate matter
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)

Exhaust from gas-powered motor vehicles; municipal waste sites
  • Particulate matter
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), especially ethylene, propylene, and acetylene
  • Nitrogen oxides
  • Sulfur dioxide
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Methane

  • Ammonia
  • Hydrogen sulfide
  • Nitrogen oxides

  • Wildfires: fine particulate matter (PM2.5)
  • Volcanic activity: sulfur dioxide and particulate matter, making volcanic smog (“vog”)

Sources near you: the activities listed below can help you learn about searching public databases to find out what industries and emissions sources are near you.

After you narrow down your pollutants of interest, you can read more about them and the range of methods to investigate the pollution below in the "Air pollutants and monitoring methods" section.

How can air pollutants impact your health?

You might choose a specific pollutant to monitor because you know it’s in your local air and you’re experiencing health impacts.

ToxFAQs by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) in the US contains a large alphabetical list of compounds, how you might be exposed to each, and their potential health impacts.

Toxic City: Health Impacts of Chemicals Emitted in the South Durban Area: this guide by the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) refers to specific companies in the South Durban area of South Africa, but the industry types, emissions, and health impacts can be applicable to anywhere.

If there aren’t specific pollutants you’re looking for and you’re more interested in detecting what’s in the air, you can do broad spectrum sampling.

What are your study goals?

Determining what you ultimately want to do with air quality data will help guide the approach you take and what kind of data will best answer your questions.

Some example goals:

  • Create community awareness of an air quality issue
  • Identify pollution hotspots for more monitoring
  • Share information on an air quality issue with media
  • Submit data to a regulatory agency

In general, using data for regulatory or legal purposes will require certain methods to collect the data and meeting set data quality standards.

Posts about planning an environmental study

Air pollutants and monitoring methods

Based on your initial observations and research on what sources of air pollution are near you, you have an idea of which air pollutants you want to investigate. What methods are available to study them?

You might be able to use existing public databases to meet your study goals, or you might decide to collect your own air monitoring data. Below are resources for gathering your own data on air quality.

Overview of common approaches

odor log

Image from Odor Log 1.0

smoke school

Image from Smoke School

dust sensor
  • Detect pollutants continuously, outputs in real-time
  • Various ways to detect different pollutants: metal oxide sensors, electrochemical, light-scattering/optical
  • Some sensors can detect both gases and particulate matter, others have more specificity
  • Trade-offs with real-time monitoring and data collected
  • Recent posts on air sensors

Image from @warren

grab sampler

Image from @kgradow1

For another way to view different air monitoring approaches, check out the box entitled, “What other kinds of community air monitoring are there?” on pg. 12 of the Guidebook for Developing a Community Air Monitoring Network. It outlines different approaches that vary in mobility and timeframes, including fenceline monitoring, grab sampling, personal monitoring, and mobile monitoring.


Air polluting gases and monitoring methods: on this wiki page we describe some main approaches to monitor gas-phase air pollutants, and then list common outdoor gaseous pollutants (e.g., volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides, ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen sulfide) and examples of tools to detect and measure them. Visit and edit the page to help grow this resource!

bucket monitor

One of the tools listed for sampling gas-phase air pollutants that has a storied history in community campaigns is the Bucket Monitor. On the linked wiki page, you’ll find information on how people have been using the bucket monitor to advocate for change, plus updated resources on building and using a bucket monitor. You can also find a kit to build your own bucket monitor in the Public Lab store.

Particulate matter (PM)

Introduction to Particulate Matter: find community questions and research notes about particulate matter, plus a deep dive into different kinds and sizes of PM.

Collecting data on particulate matter: kicks off with key resources on strategizing your monitoring efforts to match with your community goals, then describes different monitoring methods including regulatory methods and Smoke School for communities.

Choosing a method for Particulate Matter Monitoring: goes deeper into different PM monitoring approaches (visual, filter-based, optical, passive) to help you choose the method right for you. For each approach, it describes advantages and disadvantages, when it might be useful, and example tools.

simple air sensorsimple air sensor lights

One of the more accessible tools for monitoring PM that also helps you understand how some sensors work is the Simple Air Sensor. Developed by Public Lab, it’s an open-source, optical sensor-based tool that signals changing PM levels in your air with a colored LED light.

Tools for mapping and viewing data

Air quality subtopics

A collection of wiki pages on monitoring methods and approaches covering particulate matter and gases

Title Updated Version Views Likes
Air-polluting gases and monitoring methods over 2 years ago by fongvania 5 675 1
Air Quality Data over 2 years ago by bhamster 8 204 1
Silica Monitoring over 2 years ago by bhamster 15 6,359 4
Air Sensors over 2 years ago by bhamster 13 1,253 1
Air sample lab testing about 3 years ago by bhamster 3 1,248 2
Introduction to Particulate Matter almost 4 years ago by stevie 91 5,765 6
Odor Logging about 4 years ago by bhamster 33 1,657 3
Optical Monitoring of Particulate Matter over 4 years ago by stevie 24 6,324 4
Hydrogen Sulfide almost 5 years ago by warren 38 1,552 2
Filters over 5 years ago by warren 11 650 2
PM Tools almost 6 years ago by warren 3 254 0
Particle Sensing about 6 years ago by warren 25 3,468 5
Dust Sampling over 6 years ago by warren 4 487 1


Activities on Public Lab that have been tagged with air-quality will appear here

Purpose Category Status Author Time Difficulty Replications
Activity: Learning to Spot Lichens and Mosses observe - @fongvania 1h easy 0 replications: Try it »
Solar Powered Air Quality Sensor - - @nicholas - - 0 replications: Try it »
How to Build a Bucket Air Monitor - - @kgradow1 - - 1 replications: Try it »
Inexpensive HEPA Filter Fan project to reduce air pollution - - @Melissa - - 0 replications: Try it »
Smells that Kill: How to Identify Odours - - @kgradow1 - - 0 replications: Try it »
Comparing air quality databases: a fun activity - - @bhamster - - 0 replications: Try it »
Bucket Monitor Build: VVAMP - - @sarasage - - 0 replications: Try it »
How to host a community meeting - - @kgradow1 - - 0 replications: Try it »
Compare environmental test results to health standards - - @kgradow1 - - 0 replications: Try it »
Visualize data from a Simple Air Sensor using onboard serial hardware - - @bhamster - - 0 replications: Try it »
How to read an Environmental Impact Statement - - @kgradow1 - - 0 replications: Try it »
How to read a Permit Application - - @kgradow1 - - 0 replications: Try it »
How to read Environmental Test Results - - @kgradow1 - - 0 replications: Try it »
How do we get relevant PM data to residents in under 10 minutes? - - @eustatic - - 0 replications: Try it »

Activities should include a materials list, costs and a step-by-step guide to construction with photos. Learn what makes a good activity here.

Regulations, policy, and advocacy

US Environmental Protection Agency standards and regulations

National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS)

What are the standards?

Section 109 of the Clean Air Act directs the EPA to establish National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) requisite to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety (primary standard) and for the protection of public welfare (secondary standard).

The standards are for six common pollutants, referred to as criteria air pollutants: ground-level ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and lead.

Section 109(d)(1) of the Clean Air Act requires EPA to complete a thorough review of the NAAQS at 5-year intervals and enact new standards when appropriate.

The standard levels are listed in the summary table below and can also be found here.


How are the air quality standards enforced?

States and tribes use air monitoring data and models on the criteria pollutants to evaluate whether they meet the NAAQs. They send their evaluation information to the EPA, which then designates an area as attainment or nonattainment for the pollutant standard. Nonattainment areas must create and carry out a plan for attaining standards by reducing emissions.

Complete details of the standards, measurement principles, and data interpretation, can be found in Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations Part 50.

EPA Test Methods

EPA approved instruments are designated as either a Federal Reference Method (FRM) or Federal Equivalent Methods (FEM). The complete list of approved instruments for evaluating NAAQS is provided on the EPA Ambient Monitoring Technology Information Center (AMTIC) website.

Hazardous air pollutants / air toxics

In addition to the six criteria air pollutants, the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to regulate 187 hazardous air pollutants (also known as air toxics). These pollutants can cause serious health effects, such as cancer, even at low levels.

State and local regulations

Community Air Protection Program - California AB 617: addressing inequities in air quality and monitoring, California is implementing the Community Air Protection Program to “...reduce exposure in communities most impacted by air pollution.”

  • The impacts of this 2017 bill are yet to be seen--let’s update here as they become apparent
  • Potential pros: puts more air quality monitoring at the local level; aims to connect air quality to health outcomes and remediation efforts
  • Questions and potential challenges: will limited funding and capacity make communities compete with one another for resources? How exactly will polluting facilities be held accountable?

Example Air Pollution Regulations in Wisconsin

Air pollution which is defined as the presence of smoke, dust, gases, fumes in the air. The presence of these substances must also lead to injury on humans, animals or plants as well as interfere with the enjoyment of life or one's property. NR 400.02
Fugitive dust. This refers to the presence in the air of dust from sources such as open fields and piles. There will be a violation on air quality when during handling, transporting and storing of materials, the people undertaking these activities do not take precaution and some of these materials end up being released into the air. NR 415.04
Causing, allowing or permitting solid or liquid hazardous substances into the air. This includes dust, soot, pollen, smoke and liquid droplets. One can spot that violation by simply observing the ambient air. NR. 415.05
Industrial sand mines that do not take precautions to ensure dust does not escape into the air. NR 415.075

International regulations

Other resources for air quality standards

  • The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) and its National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) also offer a wealth of guidance. In particular, the NIOSH Manual of Analytical Methods is a collection of procedures for sampling and analysis of contaminants including workplace air.
  • The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), based in Atlanta, Georgia, is a federal public health agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Their Toxicological Profiles are particularly useful for when a pollutant can be identified by compound or element.
  • Correlating environmental monitoring with health monitoring: the article, “New Voices, New Approaches: Drowning in Data,” by Gwen Ottinger and Rachel Zurer outlines some of the limitations with relying on air quality standards alone.

Community posts and pages on air quality regulations



Image: @mollydanielsson

How can we use air monitoring data, either gathered from public databases or collected ourselves, to advocate for healthier air? To fill in information gaps left by regulatory agencies?

In the Community stories and projects section above, you’ll find examples of how community groups have advocated for changes to air quality policy.

In general, how can people take action with community-sourced air quality data?

  • Not all communities can or need to collect air quality data comparable to regulatory monitor data.
  • Citizen Science Programs at Environmental Agencies: Best Practices - this guide from the Environmental Law Institute suggests practices to ensure that community-sourced data can be used effectively for a range of purposes. For example:

    "Data used for policy or enforcement decisions must be highly accurate, whereas data that is used for screening or exposure may be moderately reliable since these assessments will be investigated further by the agency.”

  • This table from the EPA’s Air Sensor Guidebook matches different kinds of monitoring goals with some suggested goals for how precise and complete the air monitoring data should aim to be.

  • Citizen Science Programs at Environmental Agencies: Case Studies - this partner guide to the “Best Practices” guide above from the Environmental Law Institute offers case studies of successful community science and government partnerships. Air quality case studies start on pg. 5.

Community posts about general advocacy pathways

Title Author Created | Updated Likes Views Type
Seeking an Organizing & Advocacy Research Curation Fellow @bhamster about 3 years ago 1
Bucket Successes @A_SCH over 3 years ago 1
Empowering People to Act on Air Pollution @A_SCH over 3 years ago 1
Addressing the Health Impacts of Petrochemical Production @A_SCH over 3 years ago 1
How to Take an Air Quality Sample with a Bucket Monitor @A_SCH over 3 years ago 1
A First Look at Technical Documents @kgradow1 over 3 years ago 1
Querying the US National Response Center's data for reports of "plastic" to the US Coast Guard, with @eustatic almost 4 years ago 1
How to Set Up a Bucket Brigade @kgradow1 about 4 years ago 1
Action-Oriented Resources @stevie about 5 years ago 40
How to evaluate and choose an advocacy pathway @stevie over 7 years ago 1
Report out: Eau Claire event @stevie about 8 years ago 1

Further reading and resources

Real Time Data

EPA and its State and Tribal partners publish near real-time air quality data (typically hourly updates) as well air quality forecasts on the AirNow web site.

The AirNow site also contains, links to Air Quality Webcams, which are yet another way to evaluate air pollution.

Examples of clear and hazy days from Boston HazeCam:


Historical Data

Historical air quality test results are freely available through EPA AirData


All wiki pages related to air quality

Title Updated Version Views Likes
Air-polluting gases and monitoring methods over 2 years ago by fongvania 5 675 1
Urban Environment and Social Inclusion Index over 2 years ago by julia_e_masters 1 121 0
VVAMP almost 3 years ago by denissebn_06 34 4,753 6
Air sample lab testing about 3 years ago by bhamster 3 1,248 2
Air Sampling about 3 years ago by liz 26 8,065 3
Bucket Monitor over 3 years ago by a1ahna 94 1,775 4
The Sand Sentinel Program over 3 years ago by stevie 24 3,771 2
Air Quality over 3 years ago by bhamster 34 8,063 8
Choosing a method for Particulate Matter Monitoring over 3 years ago by bhamster 22 526 0
DustDuino over 3 years ago by bhamster 27 7,415 7
Simple Air Sensor over 3 years ago by a1ahna 47 3,798 7
Odor Logging about 4 years ago by bhamster 33 1,657 3
PurpleAir over 4 years ago by joyofsoy 16 10,148 2
Optical Monitoring of Particulate Matter over 4 years ago by stevie 24 6,324 4
Orangetown Aluf over 4 years ago by stevie 5 551 1
CAFO almost 5 years ago by stevie 3 544 0
Hydrogen Sulfide almost 5 years ago by warren 38 1,552 2
Observable air quality violations related to frac sand mining about 5 years ago by stevie 2 292 0
Roomba Indoor Air Quality Monitoring about 5 years ago by warren 49 1,789 8
Air Quality Class over 5 years ago by warren 60 691 3
Filters over 5 years ago by warren 11 650 2
DIY Indoor Air Remediation Kit over 5 years ago by liz 52 3,912 9
PM Tools almost 6 years ago by warren 3 254 0
Particle Sensing about 6 years ago by warren 25 3,468 5

Next step challenges

  • Step-by-step guides on how to use existing databases to find out what air emissions and polluting facilities are nearby in a community.
  • Clear steps on how to use and find patterns in raw air quality data, including publicly-accessible existing data or data measured by community scientists.
  • Improving accuracy in lower-cost sensors for VOCs and air toxics.
    • Testing the accuracy of currently available low-cost VOC sensors.
  • Encouraging government agencies to act on low-cost sensor data: e.g., defined pathways for community scientists to influence decision-making that isn’t limited to collecting research-grade data.