A Home Air Quality Monitor That Can Be Checked Out From The Library In polluted Pittsburgh, a new device from a local university helps residents assess indoor air. It's not the only monitor on the market — but is the only one available to borrow from a public library.

A Home Air Quality Monitor That Can Be Checked Out From The Library

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Avoiding polluted air outside can be difficult if not impossible. For most of us, between power plants, industry and fires, dirty air is all around us. One family in Pittsburgh is taking advantage of a device available through the local library system to reduce bad air quality inside their homes. WESA's Larkin Page-Jacobs has their story.

UNIDENTIFIED LIBRARY WORKER: That's for three weeks.

JOHN HORCHNER: Three weeks - great.


LARKIN PAGE-JACOBS, BYLINE: John Horchner has been eagerly waiting to check out the Speck monitor from the Carnegie Library for a few weeks. The device detects tiny particles the fraction of a width of a hair and counts them - the lower the number, the better. Horchner and his family live in a leafy neighborhood. But the greenery can belie high levels of particulate matter drifting through the air. And while he and his family are healthy, he tries to exert some control at home. They typically have three air purifiers pumping away.

HORCHNER: I think anything above good is probably bad. There is no such thing as moderate particles. Tell that to the person that was out jogging and died of a heart attack. Oh, it was moderate today.

PAGE-JACOBS: His family is amused by his vigilance. But now his daughter Christine and wife Nadine are gathered around the kitchen table to see what the Speck monitor will reveal. Horchner guesses an optimistic 10 or lower. Nadine predicts the room will give a reading of 30.

HORCHNER: OK. Here is. It's at zero. Look. Calm down. OK - back. It went up to eight then back to seven. So twelve - oh, here we are. OK, kids. In a second, I'm going to turn the air purifier on.

PAGE-JACOBS: It climbs to 22 and stays there. Next test site - the upstairs study. It scores a 20 - pretty good readings. Finally, they head to their daughter's room, where Horchner has run a little experiment. He sealed off the door with duct tape earlier in the day in an attempt to create a controlled environment.

CHRISTINE: I can't open.

HORCHNER: OK. OK, let's keep the stale air in.

PAGE-JACOBS: The verdict - 30. Not great but not bad.

ILLAH NOURBAKHSH: So it's the outside air. That's infiltration.

PAGE-JACOBS: Illah Nourbakhsh attributes the particulate pollution to Pittsburgh's dirty air seeping in around the windows and up through the floorboards. He's a professor at Carnegie Mellon University's CREATE Lab which develops technology for social innovation. Beyond infiltration from the outdoors, the air in a room is affected by a variety of activities. Nourbakhsh says the monitor can help people identify polluters in their house and change their habits, whether it's making sure air is vented while cooking, putting a filter over a window AC unit or vacuuming long before the kids get home so the particles have time to settle. And it's not just for those with existing health conditions. Perfectly healthy people can be harmed in the long term by dirty air.

NOURBAKHSH: We're talking the kind of heart conditions like arrhythmia, like cardiovascular disease. Those are things that are going to not necessarily kill you, but they're going to make the quality of your life go down.

PAGE-JACOBS: Nourbakhsh says they partnered with libraries because low-income people tend to live in areas with the worst air quality. The Speck costs $200. And those who can't afford it can borrow it for a few weeks. The CREATE Lab is trying to get them placed in libraries across the country. Ultimately, Nourbakhsh says the goal is to change behaviors.

NOURBAKHSH: You start to connect how you feel and what you smell with what you see. And pretty soon, you don't need the Speck anymore.

PAGE-JACOBS: Back in his home, John Horchner says he's OK with the air quality in his house though he may add one more air purifier. For NPR News, I'm Larkin Page-Jacobs in Pittsburgh.

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