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Air quality alert apps see spike in usage as Canada wildfires burns

  • Air pollution in the US and Europe has improved over the past decade thanks to stricter regulations, but more frequent and more intense fires have a major impact on air quality.
  • Mobile apps like IQAir AirVisual, Air Care, Breezometer and others run by government agencies help people monitor air pollution, including fire smoke, and stay away from danger.
  • Robust studies have shown that air pollution contributes to lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lower respiratory tract infections, and even affects mortality and pregnancy outcomes.

The AirCare app displays air pollution, active fires, wind conditions and pollen levels on a map.


While air quality in North America and Europe has improved over the past decade thanks to stricter environmental regulations, extreme weather and record wildfires have raised new concerns about air pollution.

This week, smoke from wildfires in Quebec and Ontario drifted across the northeastern US, with an orange haze descending over New York City and unhealthy levels of air quality lingering in the region.

As a result, more and more people are turning to mobile apps to understand when air quality is improving or deteriorating, wherever they are.

As of Thursday, the Airnow mobile app ranked as the sixth most downloaded free app on the iPhone App Store, surpassing TikTok, WhatsApp and Instagram.

Usage of these apps and new installations are often driven by regional events.

In general, air quality monitoring applications use a mix of data from government-operated satellites, weather stations, air quality, fire, and ambient air quality stations, as well as sensors and systems operated by private sector entities to monitor smoke and pollution levels. Some apps work on data collected from relatively affordable air quality sensors sold by companies such as PurpleAir and IQAir.

Outdoor air quality monitoring apps like AirNow, AirCare and AirVisual were among the most used apps in the country in recent years as wildfires raged in Oregon and California.

Here’s what these three apps do:

  • AirNow, created by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, allows users to search for air quality levels by zip code or view nationwide fire and smoke maps with available fire and smoke data that may affect the U.S. from Mexico and Canada. Like most air pollution monitors, it uses a color-coded visual system to indicate whether air pollution levels are good or dangerous or there is not enough data to make a rating.
  • Airnow also has online maps that provide the public with information about air pollution in any US zip code. This includes a Map of fire and smoke, which provides information on fire locations, smoke plumes and air quality, and AirNow Interactive map shows ozone and particulate matter from air quality monitors across the country. While particulate matter (also called “PM 2.5” or “particle pollution”) is a key pollutant in smoke, ozone can also be elevated during wildfires.
  • AirCare, made by developers in North Macedonia, it is available for iOS and Android mobile devices, including iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch and Huawei smartphones, among many others. Tiers include a free version with ads and a pro version that costs $39.99 per year. The app includes kid-friendly air pollution information, charts and maps showing pollutant levels from government sensors and stations, along with PurpleAir volunteers and other sensors across the US, Europe and Australia. In some major metro areas, the app also tracks UV and pollen levels.
  • AirVisual, made by Swiss air quality company IQAir, monitors air pollution in more than 10,000 cities and 80 countries based on data from tens of thousands of sensors, some of which are installed in US embassies abroad. The company’s free mobile apps are also ad-free and available for iOS and Android devices. In addition to real-time maps showing levels of six different types of major pollutants, IQAir’s AirVisual and mobile website provide seven-day air pollution and weather forecasts, along with air pollution news and health information. The apps can be paired with the company’s own sensors, including the portable AirVisual Pro that sells for $299.

The South Coast AQMD app shows air pollution levels in Greater Los Angeles.


Monitoring and measuring air quality is critical to public health, says Yanelli Nunez, an environmental health scientist who conducted her postdoctoral research at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

She notes that strong studies have shown that air pollution contributes to lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lower respiratory tract infections, and even affects mortality, pregnancy outcomes and cardiovascular disease.

Working in the Environmental Health Lab with Marianthi-Anna Kioumourtzoglou, Nunez said their research also showed that long-term exposure to air pollution can affect the nervous system and can affect functions such as memory or cognitive abilities.

Scientists wrote in an email to CNBC in 2021 that: “Americans who live in areas of poor air quality tend to be people of color or low-income communities. We are finally starting to pay more attention to these issues, which will hopefully lead to The composition of air pollution is also changing.”

In one example, greenhouse gas emissions from transportation decreased in New York from 2014 to 2017, while emissions from commercial cooking increased.

With increased wildfires, the scientists wrote, “The sources and composition of the air pollution mix we experience could affect our health differently, so we need to better understand source-specific effects, especially for these new prominent sources.”

While outdoor air quality is important, society doesn’t talk or do enough about indoor air quality, said Richard Corsi, the incoming dean of the UC Davis College of Engineering and currently a professor and dean at Portland State University.

Using pre-pandemic numbers, Corsi explained that the average American would spend nearly 70 of their 79 years in buildings. “Because we spend so much time indoors, even our exposure to outdoor pollutants is dominated by what we breathe in there, especially in our homes,” he said.

Outdoor pollutants from internal combustion vehicles, photochemical smog, refineries, and wildfires can enter homes and buildings when doors and windows are opened, when heating and air conditioning systems are used, or through other cracks in the building. an envelope.

Consumer apps and devices today don’t give users an absolute, precise measurement down to micrograms per cubic meter of a given pollutant, Corsi noted. But they are very valuable for spotting trends and relative changes in air quality.

Sensors placed indoors can work well to check if protective measures are working to improve the air inside a home, school or other building.

Especially during wildfire season, Corsi said, some other simple actions that can protect or improve indoor air quality include: wet mopping floors and wiping surfaces so pollutants don’t accumulate, using HEPA or high-efficiency particulate air filters and increasing MERV -a or the minimum value of the filter efficiency report in central air systems in the house.

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