Fall in my home state of Colorado (USA) means many great things, including time spent outside hiking, biking, golfing, playing, and enjoying our beautiful natural surroundings, along with the cooler temperatures that make it easier to enjoy time spent outdoors. Unfortunately, this extra outdoor time also means that the impact of poor outdoor air quality can really influence our health and activities. In the region where we live in Colorado, we have both a summer ozone alert program and winter air pollution forecasts. Most cities and countries have something similar.
What do these alerts mean, and why should we care? There are a couple of key gases that affect our air quality that we should understand.
Nitrogen oxides (NOx), including nitrogen dioxide, are formed by the combustion of fuels, which includes vehicle traffic and burning of fossil fuels to create energy and power factories and industrial plants. Emissions and the efficiency of sources plays a role in our local air quality, but so does weather, wind, time of day and traffic patterns. Breathing in air with elevated levels of nitrogen dioxide can damage the lungs, trigger asthma attacks, worsen the effects of respiratory illnesses and even make us more susceptible to colds and other respiratory infections. Nitrogen oxides also react with other chemicals in the air to form ozone and particulate matter, and with water to form acid rain.
Ground level ozone is particularly hazardous to our health, and is formed when NOx reacts with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air and sun. While stratospheric ozone is good (and protects us from the sun’s UV rays), ground level ozone is very unhealthy and can damage the lungs. Ground level ozone can cause breathing difficulties and eye irritation, and can also cause reduced resistance to lung infections and colds. It can trigger asthma attacks, and can significantly worsen symptoms of respiratory illnesses.
There are a number of actions we can take to protect ourselves and the environment. We can protect our health by making choices to reduce intensity, or play or exercise indoors when the air quality is in an unhealthy range. We can also change our habits and optimize our commuting and errands to take advantage of lower traffic areas and patterns and fewer trips in the car (which results in both better air quality and less aggravation). Many countries and states offer helpful suggestions to learn more, such as Colorado’s “Simple Steps, Better Air” program.
The most important thing we can do, however, is be informed. Understanding our local air quality allows us to make better and healthier choices in real time.
We are very excited to announce Renesas’ new ZMOD4510 outdoor air quality sensor, which measures the amount of NOx and ozone in the air and reports the levels relative to EPA’s AQI standards. With this information, we can easily make choices to enjoy the outdoors, while still protecting our health and comfort. This sensor enables affordable and real-time local information on air quality to be available to the public. With its miniature size and calibrated digital output, we expect that the ZMOD4510 will soon be found in a variety of devices, including portable health devices, outside lighting, smart homes and smart buildings.