Consumers can buy small handheld devices that measure outdoor air quality for as little as $110 these days and Brian Hutchins of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources says these monitors do “show air quality trends.”
However, Hutchins says they often have higher air pollution readings than the monitors used by government agencies like his.
“EPA has been doing some studies to show the differences between these monitors, so one needs to bear that in mind,” Hutchins says.
At least one manufacturer of outdoor air monitors for personal use has warned that in wildfire conditions air quality readings may be slightly too high because of the density of smoke particles. Hutchins says people with asthma or other health conditions still may find the information useful.
“It will give an indication of what the air quality is in real time, so one can look at the results from the low cost sensors and help people make determinations of their outdoor activities on a day to day basis,” Hutchins says.
In 2020, the DNR participated in a 16-state study of how results from government-maintained monitors compared to hand-held devices. The US Environmental Protection Agency then came up with a way to calculate the difference in readings and now uses data from small, consumer-grade monitors along with information from satellites and government-maintained monitors to measure air quality.
“People can go to EPA’s Air Now website and you can see the real-time data on that website and it will tell you whether we’re having a good day for air quality,” Hutchins says, “or if we have elevated levels, it will show that, too.”
There are also smart-phone apps that show air quality measurements. Last July, an air quality alert was issued for the entire state of Iowa due to wildfires in Canada and the western United States. Last month’s wildfires in southwest Nebraska did not dramatically affect air quality in Iowa, but experts say with wildfire seasons starting earlier in the west and spreading into Nebraska and Kansas, that’s likely to cause prompt more air quality alerts in Iowa.