How Toxic Is Your Neighborhood's Air? This Map Knows for Sure

The new Elm system shows real-time data about smog and other pollutants.

(Photo: Courtesy Elm)

Staff Writer Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at GOOD.

If it’s a “green” day we can breathe easy. Thanks to growing concern about the health dangers of inhaling smog and particle pollution, over the past 20 years weather forecasts have given us a daily download on our local air quality. To do that, forecasters tap the Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index, which rates conditions in 900 counties across America. On those unhealthy “red” days, we can’t stop inhaling and exhaling, but at least folks with asthma or other medical conditions know they should take precautions. 

But if the weather forecaster announces that Los Angeles is green, is that all 503 square miles of the City of Angels or just breezy Venice Beach? What’s the effect of the factory two streets over on the air in your backyard? The EPA simply doesn’t have enough monitoring stations to be able to tell. But that kind of real-time, hyper-local knowledge about air quality could soon be at your fingertips, thanks to a new monitoring system from biotech firm PerkinElmer.

The system revolves around a 10-pound device called Elm, which can be installed anywhere and runs on Wi-Fi. Once it’s booted up, Elm provides updates on the amount of particulate matter, nitrous oxide, and other pollutants in 20-second intervals. All that local data is beamed to a real-time, color-coded online map that anyone can access.

The device is being used in about 100 locations around the globe, and the Boston area is home to the latest pilot. With a few clicks on the Elm map, I can zoom in to see that, at this writing, air quality on Line Street in Cambridge, Mass., is poor. Meanwhile, two miles away, air at North Point Park along the Charles River is good. Armed with that information, an individual can, for example, decide where she wants to go running—or if she wants to go outdoors at all.

I clicked over to infamously smoggy Los Angeles, but there's no data, and that's true for most places on the map right now. However, PerkinElmer imagines that will change as the devices spread around the globe. Individuals can request information about buying one (the firm is not too forthcoming about costs), but over the years the company has helped the EPA with various health monitoring projects, so it's likely that it envisions the devices being purchased by cities and other official entities. If a local school district were to install one on every campus, at recess time educators could, for example, decide whether the air quality was good enough to let kids play outside.

Of course, while it's great that technology is beginning to empower individuals and communities with hyper-local air quality knowledge, there's one thing we can't forget: Nobody should have to be clicking on a map to figure out if it's safe to breathe. 

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