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The air quality consulting industry is experiencing an age of disruption. Disruption brought about by increased accessibility to low cost air monitoring equipment, growing public awareness, activism and greater regulation. But according to many consultants in the business, the biggest threat to consultants remains consultants themselves.

Headlines like ‘Air monitoring at grade school near Rockwool factory to start by spring’, ‘Air pollution still too high across Europe’ and ‘Does your lifestyle put you at risk from pollution?’ leave little doubt that the public, regulators and the media are putting air quality at the top of their agendas.

The close relationship air pollution has with climate change, set to become the biggest issue of our times if it isn’t already, means concerns aren’t going away any time soon. Global warming and air pollution rank in the top ten things Americans fear the most, according to the latest survey conducted by Chapman University.

What’s more, with increasing options for low cost air monitoring sensor equipment, everyone has the capability to measure air quality in their local neighborhood and present this data to the public, media or regulators. However, there remain questions of quality assurance and quality control of low-cost sensors. Currently there are no industry standards for sensor-based air monitors, making it hard for less expert buyers to make informed choices, and for experts to trust the data.

The consensus from many consultants is that better access to lower cost, quality air sensors must still be supported by best practice, sound science and objective interpretation.

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Threat or opportunity?

The threat to a consultant’s business is resisting the change, and there is opportunity for those who are open to it

“Sensor technology is a threat if you’re locked into conventional testing technology and won’t change,” says Vice President – Project Director, TRC in North Carolina, Dave Elam Jr. “If you are open to change, you’ll see the opportunities that sensor technology creates and respond accordingly.’

“The portability of sensor technology creates opportunities for more active, hands-on monitoring. Businesses that couldn’t afford to gather data themselves can now afford it, and it’s easier on a client’s budget too.”

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He points out that people will increasingly make lifestyle choices based on air quality, and this means that communities will use good quality data to market their neighborhoods.

“In the same way insurers measure your distance from a fire hydrant today, your health insurance rates may be set by your ZIP code,” says Elam. “The emphasis will be on high quality data and interpretation because money is at stake.”

Managing Consultant at Ramboll in San Francisco, Julia Luongo, says air districts have a lot of funding to do projects with communities, and consultants will be needed to lead those plans.

“Consultants are the third party who are able to offer our extensive domain expertise to all parties, including local air agencies, districts, government and industry. We are the neutral party.”

Senior Managing Scientist at Exponent, Inc. – Atmospheric Sciences – in Sacramento, Eric Winegar, says that in the past, clients wanted monitoring but didn’t do it because it was too expensive and too difficult.

“But mid-market cost positioned products like Aeroqual are creating opportunities for a more discretionary spend. Consultants won’t have to invest as much to access a broader range of instrumentation.”

Luongo adds that while the technology is lowering in price, “in fact, the amount of work needed to analyze it and pull out meaning may increase as we now have orders of magnitude more data than before.”

Standards, best practice and poor regulation

It’s exciting that air quality monitoring is more accessible than ever, but there is a risk  of poor calibration, misinterpretation of data and other slips in best practice. No-one wants a situation which could lead to public alarm and finger pointing based on bad data.

“Just because it looks easy doesn’t mean it is easy to do correctly,” says Winegar. “On top of that you have a lot of people making poor quality sensors, and that’s going to create problems for regulators.”

Elam says data quality and interpretation is worrying consultants, particularly when homeowners can buy a $200 sensor of uncertain quality. “There is a science to sensor technology selection, sensor deployment, sensor calibration and maintenance, and data reporting – it all depends on the objectives of the study.”

In the UK most consultants prefer modelling data and aren’t necessarily interested in going out into the field. However, many council owned ambient monitoring stations are closing down, which will create a need for consultants to generate their own data at some point.

The legislative framework simply isn’t keeping pace with the technology or, for that matter, with the growing public interest in air quality.

One UK based air quality consultant told us that a woman recently caused a furore in local media after she used results from a diffusion tube to claim local officials were lying about vehicle pollution.

It was later found that she had put the diffusion tube on a street pole at the same level as vehicle exhausts. “The science is rubbish,” he says. “But people believe it.”

Education

The best defence for the industry, regulators and consultants is education. We have another blog that dives deeper into this; Consultants Need to Become Better Educators.

Luongo acknowledges that people may try to use sensor-based technology to point fingers. That’s why it is essential that regulators and consultants ensure that they can properly and accurately communicate with the public, to avoid the risks of misinterpretation.

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“It’s a great opportunity to educate. People are using sensors to change behaviours and that’s really powerful. You can tell somebody not to burn a candle and they won’t listen. You can show them the data and suddenly it becomes a tangible thing that motivates action.”

“People want to take action and ownership and make changes, and we can help them do that by using the data to help them understand what’s going on and how to do a better job at mitigating and modelling,” says Luongo.

Elam says, however, that consultants need to be careful that they don’t get caught on the wrong side of a community backlash.

“We must be transparent with our information and data. We have to be the trusted voice of the scientist, remain technically grounded and work on our ability to communicate the science – to communities and industry.”

Who is Aeroqual?

Aeroqual makes advanced sensors and equipment for air quality monitoring. We help environmental consultants, industrial hygienists and EHS managers to deliver time-constrained projects on budget, by providing them with cost effective and reliable instrumentation. Aeroqual’s solutions are used for community air monitoring programs, on remediation and brownfield development sites, for environmental impact assessments, and industrial fenceline monitoring. Please contact us and tell us about your requirements.

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