Where are Air Quality Sensor Guidelines and Standards Heading?

Where are air quality sensor guidelines and standards

Article Details

Last Updated

30 March 2024


13 August 2019



Aeroqual’s Chief Technology Officer and co-founder, Geoff Henshaw, recently attended a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency workshop to talk about standards and guidelines for air quality sensors. Other participants included Gordon Gillerman, Director of the Standards Coordination Office at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Dr Michel Gerboles, who heads up the standards working group in the EU.

Here’s a Q& A with Geoff on where he thinks air quality sensor standards are heading.

Q: Why do we need a set of standards or guidelines for air quality sensor technology? Surely the market will be the final arbiter?

A: Anybody can throw a box of components together and sell it for a few hundred bucks as an air quality sensor, but the consequences of poor quality equipment, lack of calibration protocols and inaccurate data can run into billions of dollars, causing unnecessary panic, stress and even litigation – not to mention potential health risks.

Standards let customers know what they are getting for their money. Standards guide manufacturers on the product specifications they need to achieve. Standards prevent wrong decisions, unnecessary actions and potential over-exposure to bad air.

From this workshop it is very clear that 2020 will be a watershed year for air quality sensor standards.

Q: Do you have any real-world examples that support your argument that standards are needed?

A: Last year there was a high level of awareness and concern about the terrible wildfires occurring throughout the States that prompted the use of low cost PM2.5 sensors to track the smoke. Unfortunately, the data reported by the sensors in comparison to the reference stations run by Air Quality Management Districts often showed that the air sensor network was over-reporting. When the air sensor data was then used without calibration to make decisions in good faith there was the potential for mistakes to have been made.

There are more sensors in the marketplace than ever before, and more people using the technology than ever before. The need to regulate stems from the fact that data from air quality sensors is not only impacting people’s lives, the data is also used to demand accountability and drive change – but for the data to be useful it needs to meet a certain quality threshold.

raging wildfire and smoke
planet earth image

Q: The U.S. EPA workshop you attended featured guest speakers such as the EU’s Dr Michel Gerboles. This suggests there’s a global push for standards and guidelines?

A: The European Union, the United States and China are leading the way in a search for a common set of quality air sensor technology standards. In Europe, a European Union working group led by Dr Gerboles is developing an EU framework of standards for gas and particle measurement.

In North America the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a programme underway to set-up guidelines for the quality of air sensor technology, which is expected to be released in 2020.

The Chinese Government is also in the process of identifying a set of air quality sensor standards.

Q: What is the EU doing about air quality standards?

A: The workshop heard a presentation from Dr Michel Gerboles on what the EU are doing on sensor standards. The EU is at final draft stage and expects to publish by the end of 2020.

Q: Is everybody doing their own thing? Or will there be consensus?

A: Gordon Gillerman told us about the work being done by ASTM International, a world renowned standards organisation based on consensus. ASTM is consulting participants – from the air quality monitoring industry, users of the technology, manufacturers and regulators – on a set of standards.

This is encouraging because the ASTM’s consensus model, as Gillerman so clearly articulated, tends to result in a design by and for users, which means it achieves quicker acceptance.

Q: Following a decade of pioneering work in the development of portable air sensor technology, Aeroqual signed a five year collaboration agreement with the U.S. EPA in 2017. What’s come of that?

A: The objective of the agreement was to investigate new applications, methodologies and technologies for the low-cost measurement of outdoor air pollutants.

The EPA’s work on developing guidelines, that will specify what an air quality sensor performance needs to be for various measurement applications, is continuing.

Q: Does this mean the U.S. EPA is close to releasing a set of standards or guidelines? And what, if any, is the difference between guidelines and standards?

A: To date, the EPA has indicated it will release guidelines rather than federal regulations. This means compliance will be voluntary.

However, the respect that the EPA commands means we can expect market impact around the world when they do release their guidelines; they will get attention and that can only be good for the industry.

The EPA intends to roll out ozone and PM2.5 guidelines early 2020, followed by SO2, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and PM10 in 2021.

Q: Why did Aeroqual participate in the workshop?

A: The EPA workshop was held to gain insights from academia, government and manufacturers, which includes Aeroqual. The EPA of course cannot endorse certain manufacturers, but it is important that the agency gets input from the people making the devices.

US EPA workshop presentation 2019

Presentation at the July 2019, US EPA Workshop

Q: What contribution did Aeroqual make?

A: I spoke on behalf of Aeroqual, presenting on the market drivers we’re seeing. This includes environmental factors such as climate change and resulting extreme events like wildfires, soil erosion and higher temperatures.

We can see that the end user and customer requirements are becoming more sophisticated. End users are starting to get the data that they need to make reliable decisions, which means the market is buoyant. The fact that standards are close to becoming a reality demonstrates that market strength.

Q: In terms of the market demand you speak of, where is that coming from?

A: Public awareness around air quality means it is no longer acceptable to cite an air reference site 20 miles away as having any relevance to the air they are breathing. There is also a trust issue, I think. Citizens don’t necessarily trust that government data is representative of their situation and want their own measurements. Non-expert users want their own equipment to be able to understand what they are breathing.

Much of this new demand to measure is driven, in part, by an emerging health consciousness that has been created by innovations such as wearable tech.

concept wearable air quality monitor

Unknown concept idea for a wearable air quality monitor

Q: Did the U.S. EPA workshop identify any issues or concerns from manufacturers?

A: Manufacturers did express concern about the type of testing the equipment would be subject to, as well as their worry that the cost of testing could be high. Another issue was how to harmonize standards at an international level.

Traceability and transparency was another key conversation. The way in which a measurement is achieved can be proprietary to the manufacturer, which could cause difficulties around calibration or how instrument output quality is to be evaluated.

The reality is, however, that it is all one step at a time at this stage.

Q: Is this all good news compared to a few years ago?

A: It is good news. Standards are coming and they will set the bar in terms of how air sensors are to be used within the regulations. Guidelines will become regulations. When and how is just a matter of time.

Aeroqual’s AQY – Micro Air Quality Monitor

Aeroqual’s AQY – Micro Air Quality Monitor

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.

If you would like to know more about Aeroqual’s air quality monitors, please contact us to tell us more about your air monitoring requirements.

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