Thursday, July 9, 2015

Measuring air quality around the state

By Melanie Forster and Camille St. Onge | Air Quality 

You’ve likely seen recent news stories about wildfires throughout the Northwest impacting air quality in Washington.

Smoke from the fires is putting high levels of fine particle pollution into our air. These high levels of air pollution are showing up on Ecology’s air monitoring network and health departments are asking citizens to take precautions. 

You may ask yourself, how does Ecology’s monitoring network work and measure pollution impacts?

Washington’s air monitoring network
Ecology and its local clean air agency partners place air monitors throughout the state to track pollution levels. Monitors are connected to one statewide network that publishes near-real-time air quality information on Ecology’s Washington Air Quality Advisory (WAQA) map. A dot on the map represents a single monitoring site.

Monitoring sites come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some are more sophisticated buildings that house an array of equipment and multiple monitors. Others are a sole air monitoring unit perched on a building or other structure. 

These monitors provide valuable information about harmful smoke levels. They operate around the clock, 365 days a year.

What the colors mean

The color of a dot on the Ecology air monitoring map indicates the air quality level the monitor is reading.

Our air monitors measure pollution and change the display color of the dot to match the Washington Air Quality Advisory (WAQA).

The example map in this article has several dots that are orange or red. If you are near a site that is orange or red you may want to take precautions to protect your health. People with heart disease, asthma, or any other heart or lung problems should limit outdoor activities. Babies, young children, and older adults are also more at risk of health problems from smoke. Smoke can also affect healthy adults, especially those who perform manual labor outside or exercise outdoors. For more information on health effects from smoke, see Department of Health’s wildfire smoke page.

Monitoring station geeky facts
Most of Ecology’s monitors are nephelometers [nef-uh-lom-i-ter]. They are easy-to-operate, affordable and reliable instruments that measure fine particle pollution.

While this technology provides reliable data on fine particles, many of Washington’s nephelometers are getting old. As they age, these instruments become less reliable and may break down when needed  most. Ecology’s Air Quality Program Calibration & Repair laboratory is preparing to deploy 10 new instruments to ensure that we continue to provide the vital air pollution information we need to protect our health. 

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