TL;DR — Air pollution has critical impacts on our health and the state of our environment, and it is responsible for significant economic consequences due to these harms. Thus, working towards cleaner air through effective air quality monitoring and management is an essential part of building a healthier and more sustainable future. We break down types of air quality monitoring networks, various technologies that exist, the negative health and environmental impacts of poor air quality, and the regulatory framework that exists for reducing pollution exposure.

An introduction to air pollution

Air pollution has become increasingly recognized as a global crisis for its myriad of negative impacts on human and environmental health.

Air pollution is deeply harmful to our world and our lives. According to a Harvard study, fossil fuel air pollution is responsible for one in five deaths worldwide

The particulate matter pollution from fossil fuel combustion has been linked to as many as 8 million premature deaths around the globe, and air pollution’s acute and cumulative effects may be responsible for up to 10 million deaths.

What is air quality monitoring?

Air quality monitoring refers to the collection and measurement of ambient air pollution samples. The data from these samples is compared to clean air standards and historical information regarding air quality levels, along with data reflecting its health and environmental impacts, to determine the state of the air.

Air quality monitoring data allows officials to determine compliance with certain air quality standards, such as the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) in the U.S.

Monitoring is a general term for on-going collection and use of measurement data or other information for assessing performance against a standard or status with respect to a specific requirement.” 


Types of air quality monitoring systems

Air quality is measured at a variety of levels — including federal, state, regional, and local levels. Air quality can change greatly between relatively close geographic locations, making it important to have a dense air pollution measurement network that reports air quality at both a regional and smaller scale.

At the federal level, reference-grade monitors often make up the national air quality monitoring network

State-level networks monitor air pollution at the state level. In California, the state-wide ambient air quality monitoring network has more than 250 monitoring stations placed across the state.

According to the objectives listed by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), California’s air quality monitoring system seeks to:

  • Characterize the nature and severity of air pollution in the state
  • Measure air quality against the Ambient Air Quality Standards and determine attainment status
  • Identify trends in pollutant concentrations
  • Provide regularly updated air quality information
  • Determine levels of community exposure to harmful pollutants

Air quality monitoring districts are established to monitor air pollution levels at the local level and enforce relevant standards.

One such air quality district, the Monterey Bay Air Resources District (MBARD), deployed low-cost sensors to supplement their existing monitoring network in order to bring more real-time data to their municipalities and address air pollution concerns, such as the impacts of wildfire smoke.

However, many people live in counties or regions that lack adequate air quality monitoring coverage, especially when it comes to key pollutants such as PM2.5 that have significant impacts on human and environmental health. According to the EPA, two-thirds of counties (2,120 of 3,142) in the United States had no ambient air quality monitoring infrastructure associated with the national monitoring system in 2019. This is why it is important to establish local monitoring networks to fill in the gaps left behind by existing monitors. 

For more information on the ways that low-cost sensors can be deployed to supplement air quality monitoring networks at the local level, check out our work with Brightline Defense and Groundwork Richmond.

Parameters that are measured in air quality monitoring

At the federal level in the United States, the USEPA measures six criteria pollutants under the NAAQS:

Other pollutants of concern include air toxics, or pollutants that are known or suspected to have cancer-causing properties or otherwise contribute to serious health effects. Examples of air toxics include benzene, arsenic, and mercury.

Types of air quality monitoring stations

A variety of technologies exist that function to monitor air quality.

Federal reference method (FRM) equipment and federal equivalent method (FEM) equipment is often deployed by government agencies to monitor air pollution levels at fixed locations. In the United States, FRM and FEM networks are managed by the USEPA and state and local agencies.

Near-reference monitors refers to air quality monitoring technology that has been evaluated as having high accuracy and data quality but is less expensive than traditional reference-grade monitors. Near-reference monitors are calibrated with reference-grade equipment. 

Low-cost sensors are devices that are designed to detect levels of certain pollutants, such as particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide, as well as certain environmental factors like temperature and humidity. Low-cost sensors provide a less expensive alternative to reference-grade equipment, allowing them to be deployed at a higher density to capture more high-resolution data. 

For more information about the myriad of use cases that low-cost sensors can be deployed to address, check out our blog here.

Air quality monitoring can also be stationary or mobile.

Stationary monitoring collects air pollution data at individual stationary sources which may be placed near a variety of pollution sources, such as factories or a busy road, or in a community that experiences disproportionately high air pollution.

Mobile air quality monitoring involves air pollution measurement equipment that can be moved to different locations, which is often achieved by attaching them to vehicles. Mobile monitoring allows for the collection of air quality data over a larger area within a short period of time, though these monitors can also sometimes miss certain air pollution spikes, trends, or hotspots.

Like low-cost sensors, mobile air quality monitoring is often used alongside reference-grade monitors. Mobile monitoring equipment can be linked to GPS systems to geolocate air pollutants and track temporal variability over time.

Check out our blog here for more information on the different types of air quality monitoring technologies that exist and their uses.

Why is air quality monitoring important?

Poor air quality has a multitude of negative effects, making it highly important to monitor air quality and understand exposure levels. 

Air quality has also been recognized for its intricate relationship with climate change, including the ways that addressing some sources that contribute to air pollution may also help in mitigating climate change. 

Check out our blog here for more information on how air quality co-benefits can help drive climate action.

The negative impact of poor air quality on health

Decades of research demonstrate the vast negative impacts that air pollution has on human health and the way it affects virtually the entire body. 

Read our blog here taking a deep dive on the health impacts of air pollution for more information

Children, elderly people, those with preexisting conditions, and those that live in areas with elevated air pollution levels are especially vulnerable to these negative health impacts.

Emerging research shows that air pollution not only impacts areas like the lungs and cardiovascular system, but also the brain. Read our blog here for more information on how air pollution impacts the brain and mental and cognitive health.

These impacts tend to disproportionately impact communities of color and low-income communities, who tend to suffer from higher air pollution levels due to a variety of factors, including environmental racism.

Read our blog here about the crucial role that environmental justice communities play in improving air quality and reducing harmful health outcomes.

The economic consequences of poor air quality

Air pollution has significant economic consequences due to the variety of ways that poor air quality impacts human and environmental health.

Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2015 found an estimated USD 1.6 trillion in costs due to premature death and disability from air pollution in Europe.

According to data from Stanford University, air pollution costs the US about 5% of its GDP in damages, which totalled to $790 billion in 2014.

The biggest air pollution-related damages are concentrated in the sectors of agriculture, utilities, manufacturing, and transportation.

A variety of negative economic impacts result from poor air quality, especially PM2.5 exposure, including:

  • Reduced workforce productivity
  • Lost school and workdays
  • Lower crop yields
According to the calculations in the [OECD] report, global air pollution-related healthcare costs are projected to increase from USD 21 billion (using constant 2010 USD and PPP exchange rates) in 2015 to USD 176 billion 2005 in 2060”

— OECD Report, “The economic consequences of outdoor air pollution” 

Legal and regulatory requirements for air quality monitoring

Air quality is managed based on federal, state, and local regulations.

While state or tribal regulations may be more stringent than those set by the USEPA, they may not be weaker. California, for example, has one of the nation’s strictest set of environmental regulations.

While these regulatory limits exist, it is important to note that evidence shows that there is no safe level of air pollution.

Taking stock of our air

Air quality monitoring is an essential part of addressing the array of harms that air pollution brings to our health and our environment. By establishing well-designed air quality monitoring networks, we can effectively capture the state of the air and work towards reducing pollution exposure.

Interested in measuring air quality for cleaner air, improved physical and mental health, and a healthier climate? Get in touch with our team to learn more about our Sensing-as-a-Service solution for governments, businesses, and community organizations, using our Clarity Node-S monitors and modules that do not depend on infrastructure like WiFi or power — making them especially resilient during environmental disasters.