I Put an Air Quality Monitor on My Bike And Went Looking For Smog

A new project in Toronto is keeping tabs on the city’s air quality.

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May 6 2016, 10:00am

Image: Jake Kivanç

On a recent Wednesday, I jumped on my bike and rode to Kensington Market, a busy neighbourhood in downtown Toronto. I was meeting a few members of an environmental group that's monitoring air quality in some of the city's neighbourhoods.

As I turned onto Dundas St., a traffic jam was causing some major congestion. Navigating through it, I felt that familiar sensation that plagues bikers and pedestrians alike—choking on clouds of exhaust.

That's what we were setting out to monitor. Members of the Toronto Environmental Alliance, or TEA (where I was formerly a volunteer), handed me a air quality monitor and GPS, which I strapped to the handlebars of my bike.

We spent the rest of the afternoon cruising around the city, checking the air.

Heather Marshall of the Toronto Environmental Alliance cruises down the lakefront. Image: Jake Kivanç

Monitoring air quality is important: for one thing, pollution can trigger health problems like asthma and heart arrhythmias. But checking the air quality of an entire city is a massive undertaking. While the province does have its own air monitoring stations—39 around Ontario, including four in Toronto—they aren't giving us a complete enough picture, and that's where citizen science comes in.

TEA and Environment Hamilton, another green non-profit, have teamed up on the INHALE Project—the Initiative for Healthy Air and Local Economies. Volunteers are given a portable air monitor (just like I had on that bike ride) and a GPS unit to collect corresponding readings as they move through city streets.

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We already have a pretty good idea of what pollutants are in the air, at least in Ontario, thanks to the provincial monitoring stations. They check for up to six pollutants: ground level ozone, fine particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide and total reduced sulphur (which produces that rotten egg smell). This fine particulate matter is particularly hard to detect, and for our bodies to defend against.

Daily readings from these monitors show up on local weather reports, when there's a smog warning in effect, for example. But some people think they're way too general: Hamilton has just three stations to monitor the whole city.

The bike-mounted air monitor. Image: Jake Kivanç

Researchers and environmentalists—not to mention cyclists and pedestrians—want to know what's happening at each individual intersection, so they can plan routes and ideally avoid the most polluted parts of the city.

The day I went around on my bike with TEA members, the air quality was good thanks to crisp spring air and a recent rainfall.

But that doesn't mean that we didn't see any concerning readings, especially in areas that were congested. Every intersection seems to be a hotspot for pollution, and made our monitors spike, sometimes reaching over 2,000 parts per million. Marshall told us that ideal conditions fall between 500 to 1,000 ppm.

When we headed down to the lakeshore bikepath, we recorded consistently high readings as heavy traffic inched its way towards the Gardiner Expressway—one of Toronto's busiest highways, which happens to run along the lakefront.

Even so, if it weren't for our air quality monitors, you could almost forget you were so close to the highway as we headed down the bikepath that runs along the lake.

Image: INHALE, Kevin Worthington, and Google Maps

Because the project just launched, it isn't yet possible to drill down on the data, or to make comparisons neighbourhood by neighbourhood. But from what INHALE has collected so far, it's clear that avoiding congested streets and rush hour traffic, not to mention routes frequented by trucks, can reduce your exposure to pollution.

That's what led Kevin Worthington—the programmer and analyst behind the interactive air quality map that illustrates INHALE's data on its web site—to this work.

"I'm an avid cyclist," Worthington told me. "So, I got to realize that it's quite a concern based upon the routes I take."

INHALE's air monitors, which it lends out to its volunteers, aren't perfect. They're less reliable than Ontario's monitors and, as Worthington told me, humidity can cause false readings. But they do give an immediate picture of the area you're in, and can't help but make you more aware of what you're breathing.

In that sense, INHALE's project is more about raising awareness than anything else. Avoiding pollution hotspots in the city is one thing, but you can't skip over these busy intersections forever—not if you still want to live in Toronto.

Its organizers hope that, by making people realize just how much air pollution is clogging up our city, they'll spur people to push for action, like better transit and more green spaces.

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