'See' What You Breathe with New Air-Quality Monitor
The AirVisual Node can show pollution levels, temperature, humidity and stuffiness, both indoors and outdoors.
Credit: AirVisual

People typically think about clean or dirty air only when they're outside, but air quality can be a significant problem even indoors. And now, using a new gadget, people can identify pollutants — some smaller than the width of a hair — in their homes, and this could help ward off some illnesses, the device's creators said.

AirVisual — a global team of scientists, engineers and others — is producing the gadget, called the AirVisual Node. The Node's bright and colorful screen can illuminate pollution, temperature, humidity and stuffiness, both indoors and outdoors. The team hopes to change the approach to air-quality collection, said Yann Boquillod, co-founder of AirVisual.

People generally have some understanding of what they're breathing outdoors, because most governments actively monitor the air, Boquillod said. Indoor air, on the other hand, is a "big unknown," he told Live Science. "You spend 80 to 90 percent of your time indoors, so if you are able to actually control your indoor air quality," then you can protect your and family's health, Boquillod said. [In Photos: World's Most Polluted Places]

Using this monitor, "I have the visibility of how much pollution my children are breathing," he said.

Indoor air pollution can come from stove tops, fireplaces and wood products, among other sources, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Burning food, especially, can release contaminant-laden smoke into the air, Boquillod said. The Node can identify these contaminants, which can include microscope particles, or particulate matter, called PM2.5. The "2.5" comes from the diameter of the particle, which is 2.5 micrometers. "It's a very tiny particle, much smaller than a hair," Boquillod said.

The Node can measure particles up to 10 micrometers (PM10) in diameter, which includes dust. Particles smaller than PM10 can be inhaled into the lungs and get past the body's normal defense systems, eventually entering the bloodstream, Boquillod said. This can give rise to health issues like eye, nose and throat irritation, he added. The smallest particles can wedge deeply into the lungs, causing respiratory infections, bronchitis and even lung cancer, according to the EPA.

The Node is able to measure the particles using laser technology, the company said. Inside the Node, there is a fan that sucks in ambient air, a laser that shoots a sharp and precise laser beam, and a photo-sensor under the laser. "Whenever particulate matter passes in front of the photo-sensor, it breaks the laser beam," causing interference that is picked up by the photo-sensor, Boquillod said. "The photo-sensor counts how many times the laser beam is broken."

The device relies on a powerful algorithm that identifies the size and number of particles for each intake and extrapolates data from successive intakes to determine overall air pollution, Boquillod said. In addition to examining particles, the device also measures carbon dioxide levels, which can indicate how well a room is ventilated. The larger the amount of concentrated carbon dioxide there is, the stuffier a room tends to be. [The 10 Most Pristine Places on Earth]

When carbon dioxide levels get too high, "you feel like you are not at the most of your cognitive power," Boquillod said. The Node can measure carbon dioxide concentrations of 400 parts per million (ppm) to 10,000 ppm. When carbon dioxide reaches 1,000 ppm, the environment is confined and needs some fresh air, and when the level rises to 1,500 ppm, people will start to feel poorly, he said. When the level soars to 2,000 ppm, it's time to ventilate and exit, Boquillod said.

The best place to gather air-quality data is wherever you spend the most time, Boquillod said, which could be the bedroom or living room. The Node can also be used to measure air pollution outdoors, though the device needs to be in the shade, away from wind and shielded from rain. The Node can connect to the Internet to send outdoor air-quality measurements to AirVisual, which is planning to consolidate and share the data worldwide.

Revenue generated by the Nodes, which are selling on the crowdsourcing site Indiegogo, will help fund AirVisual's social project to map air pollution around the world. Although governments already collect air-quality data in a number of countries, many other nations are poorly monitored, compromising the health of citizens in those places, Boquillod said.

AirVisual currently offers an app and website that share and forecast global air quality. The group has the same goals as a nongovernmental organization, but wants to be self-funded to increase its efficiency in collecting and distributing data, Boquillod said.

The AirVisual Node sells for $149 and has collected $25,500, or 255 percent of its initial $10,000 goal, on Indiegogo. There are 18 days left in the crowdfunding campaign, and the Airvisual team plans to deliver the gadget in April, Boquillod said.

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