Citizen science projects on air quality produce useful information and raise public awareness

News Published 12 Mar 2020 Last modified 09 Mar 2020
2 min read
Image copyright: Norwegian Institute for Air Research
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Air pollution is the biggest environmental health threat in Europe and more and more people are taking action to claim their right to clean air. A new European Environment Agency (EEA) report provides an overview of low-cost devices that citizens and NGOs can use to measure local air quality.

The EEA report ‘Assessing air quality through citizen science’ presents successful examples of using simple low-cost devices to measure local air pollution levels. The report also briefly explains how these devices work, summarises their reliability, and highlights the potential of such devices to address questions about air quality.

The EEA report shows that citizen science initiatives can produce useful information about local air quality. Such information can be used, for example, to improve official air quality models used to estimate pollution levels and identify suitable actions to improve air quality. The initiatives often also help to raise public awareness of air quality problems, which can lead to stronger public measures to address the issue or changes in personal behaviour, such as switching from driving to walking or cycling.

However, the various types of measuring devices each have different benefits and disadvantages and users should be aware of their limitations, the EEA report cautions. Although some devices are relatively reliable, low-costs sensors can for example, be sensitive to weather conditions or lack the capacity to measure very high or very low pollutant concentrations.

In the near future, the increasing number of citizen science initiatives focused on air pollution, coupled with new data digitalisation approaches, may represent a paradigm shift in the way that air quality is monitored, the EEA report states. A large network of low-cost sensors, combined with statistical analysis or machine learning, could complement the quality of the current official data and provide new pathways to obtain accurate, real-time information.

Background


The EU Air Quality Directives require every Member State to establish a network of air quality monitoring stations in accordance with a set of criteria. These criteria specify both technical requirements for instruments and the types of locations where stations should be situated, including at traffic, industrial, urban, suburban and rural sites. These provisions aim to ensure that measurements are representative for a defined area and ensure the delivery of harmonised, comparable air quality data across Europe.

Although emissions of air pollutants have decreased substantially in Europe over recent decades, poor air quality continues to harm human health and the environment. Poor air quality causes an estimated 400 000 premature deaths in Europe every year and a significant proportion of Europe’s population lives in areas where air pollution poses risks to health. This is especially true for cities, where exposure to particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution poses health risks.

The European Air Quality Index allows users to understand more about air quality where they live, work or travel. Displaying up-to-date information for Europe, users can gain insights into the air quality in individual countries, regions and cities.

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