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These Plastic Benches Double As Air Monitoring Stations

The EPA is trying to get people to connect with data about their air.

The U.S. government collects a lot of air quality data, as it’s mandated to do under the Clean Air Act. But it spends very little time communicating that data to the public. Its network of large monitoring stations is mostly behind barbed wire and high fences, and only scientists and VIPs get to see what’s inside.

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Recognizing the disconnect, the Environmental Protection Agency is trying a new tack: public benches that double as air quality monitors. “We really want to improve people’s knowledge about air quality and have that information be very accessible and timely,” says Gayle Hagler, the engineer behind the project. “That’s why it’s a station people can walk up to and sit down on, and right next to it, there’s a direct data readout.”

Gayle Hagler

Made from recycled milk jugs, the benches measure fine particle pollution (PM2.5), ozone, as well as wind speed, temperature, and humidity. They’re self-powered with solar panels and some models have small wind turbines as well (in case the sun doesn’t shine). They’re now installed in Durham, North Carolina, Washington, D.C, Kansas City, and Philadelphia, with more being rolled out to Chicago, Hartford, Connecticut, and Oklahoma City this summer.

The project is called “Village Green” after villages in New England built around green spaces. All the data is also streamed online. Not including installation and maintenance, the benches cost about $30,000, Hagler says.

Gayle Hagler

The EPA isn’t looking to replace its conventional monitoring plants, because, while expensive and unspecific, they do provide very accurate measurements. In tests, the benches came within 10% or 20% of that gold standard, which is good enough for reference and to see trends over time, but not sufficient for regulatory purposes.

To get more benches into cities, the agency plans soon to release all the bench specifications publicly, so people can iterate as they like. “If people want to take it and improve upon it, the knowledge will be out there to do it,” Hagler says.

At the same time, the EPA wants to encourage the development of new handheld sensors (like these), provided, that is, they’re accurate. It currently has a program in Atlanta to test for the best ones, and it’s issuing new grants for university research.

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“The ultimate vision is to have a very fine-grained spatial level [of data], so we can understand what people are exposed to on a daily basis,” Hagler says.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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