Air quality and your health

Reading time ~5 minutes


The quality of the air we breathe is not something we often think about, because most of the air we breathe is clear (over short distances), so we don’t notice the pollution. However, modern-day technologies like cars, trucks, power plants, and factories, are polluting our air. It’s only going to get worse with increasing populations and consumption of energy, while we’re still using the same technologies. To protect and optimize your health, it’s best to monitor your air quality and purify it when necessary.

Do you clear your throat a lot? Cough often? Have congested nasal passages and sinuses, manifesting headaches and pain? Chest pain, feeling tired a lot, dry/sore throat all the time, get sick a lot? If you don’t, surely you know someone who does, unless you’re lucky enough to live in a clean-air area, which is probably not near a densely-populated area. Many health problems can arise from poor air quality:

  • chest pain, headaches, nausea, allergies, eye irritation
  • weakened athletic performance, increased fatigue, reduced resistance to infection
  • respiratory problems: coughing, sore and/or dry throat, shortness of breath, emphysema, bronchitis, asthma
  • mucus and sinus problems: post-nasal drip, sinus headaches and congestion,
  • death: heart attacks and arrythmia, cancer, strokes

It usually sneaks up on people (like slowly heating up the water to boil a frog), but in cases with spikes of high amounts of particles, can cause death within days to weeks. Air pollution is getting more and more attention; the World Health Organization recently declared that 1 in 8 deaths is linked to air pollution, and “that air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk.” Chronic exposure will give you cancer (the small particles have lots of surface area and free radicals that damage your body), and take off 1-3 years of your life. Other impacts range from premature births to serious respiratory disorders, even when the particle levels are very low.

My air quality journey

In the summer of 2014, I started getting some nasty sinus headaches. I was living in the epicenter of Isla Vista, the student hood-rich ghetto of UCSB, in an old house built in the 1960’s or earlier. I had been smoking unfiltered cigarettes a bit (peer pressure to smoke in Isla Vista is overwhelming), and noticed the dust levels in my room seemed very high, although I never measured them. In effect, what was causing my congestion and pain was poor air quality. Of course, smoking is the absolute worst thing you can do for your air quality and respiratory health. However, if this is compounded by poor ambient air quality, your poor sinuses don’t stand a chance. And even if you don’t smoke, if you live in or around a respectable modern-day population, full of cars and trucks, factories and crops, you’re likely to have sinus headaches, pain, and nasty buildups of mucus. So is there anything we can do to prevent these quality-of-life-decreasing problems? Of course! Get an air filter. There’s a reason why the worldwide sale of air filters sales have been drastically increasing in recent years, in India (here’s another story on it), in China, and the US.

Big cities of course are the worst places for air pollution, especially cities in developing countries with a lot of industry, like China and India. However, even in the US there are deadly amounts of pollution. For example, in the Long Beach area of LA, the pollution from the big diesel ships and trucks is so bad it can make kids turn blue.

Effect on skin health and appearance/beauty

Skin pores, which usually house a hair follicle or a sweat duct, are about 10-100μm in diameter, so small particles can get trapped in and around the pores. Although it’s only been demonstrated that very small (~40nm diameter) particles can directly enter your body through a pore, particles from pollution will still clog up your pores, giving you pimples, zits, and acne, and requiring more frequent cleaning of your skin. While I was in the San Francisco Bay Area, I noticed a LOT of people there have very poor looking skin–some thing in Denver. A lot of people had scars and marring of their face from acne, I hypothesize the air pollution is a major contributor to that.

How to measure the air quality

Measuring the air quality has been expensive in the past, and still isn’t that cheap. The cheapest consumer device I can find for air quality monitoring is about $200, one is the Speck, another is from Dylos. However, these have the problem of being too expensive, and not being portable. There’s another portable solution, but it’s still too expensive at $250. Dylos and the Speck aren’t open source or portable, which is a problem for me, but the aircasting device is–but it’s just too expensive. The price needs to be under $50, and preferably $20. So I started marking my own devices and measuring, and made a cheap air purifier from a furnace air filter and 20” box fan. I watched as the particle concentration would go from very poor (outdoor air quality in the Bay Area) to excellent in a matter of minutes or hours. I also noticed that the air quality was very poor all around the San Francisco Bay Area, Isla Vista, CA (even a few blocks from the beach), the Denver/Boulder/Golden, CO area, the Nebraska Southerland State Park with a power plant next to it. I noticed in the Factor E Farms workshop, where there is no ventilation (just a few open doors), and tons of welding/grinding/acetylene torch cutting, the air quality was off the charts. I also noticed when cooking bacon or burning anything in the kitchen, the air quality gets horrible. I noticed the air quality in the factory I worked at in the Bay Area would start off ok, but rocket into the ‘very poor’ region as workers began their day. Once at Thanksgiving, I left the monitor running in the kitchen, while my mom left a roast cooking in the oven. We came back to find out the roast was starting to burn!–and the air quality monitor had logged a massive spike in airborne particles.

All of these experiences shaped my desire for an air quality meter–one that was portable (small, lightweight, battery-powered), logged data to the internet, was open source, and could be connected to other devices for home automation. I should be able to leave it in the kitchen while I’m cooking, and have it give me a text alert if it detects smoke. I should also be able to leave it in a room and text me if there is smoke from something burning. I should be able to have the meter turn on smart outlets for fans or air purifiers. In essence, a portable air quality meter that also can turn on or off fans, and act as an internet of things smoke detector. So that’s what I’ve created. If you’re interested in beta testing one, they are for sale right now–order them here.

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