Personal monitor used to check out city's air quality

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Patrons at the Carnegie Library Downtown breathed in good quality air Thursday.

So did people grabbing lunch at Fifth Avenue Place, hopping on the T at the Wood Street Station and walking through the metal detectors at the City-County Building.

And even outside on streets where the smell of cigarette smoke and bus fumes lingered, the air quality was measurably good, at least according to an informal and unscientific survey conducted by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette using a personal air monitor.

The devices were distributed to about 200 people who visited the Children's Museum on the North Side today for the formal launch of the Breathe Project, an initiative to improve the Pittsburgh region's air quality. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette obtained one of the devices and used it to gauge air quality in Downtown spaces.

The gadgets, about the size of a car key, detect levels of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that can cause negative health effects. Plug it into a USB port and if the quality of the room's air is good, a green LED light will appear.

If it is fair, a yellow light will appear and if the air quality is poor, a red light will show.

"This is not a sophisticated type of monitoring equipment, but it's kind of cool," said Phil Johnson, senior program officer for environment programs at the Heinz Endowments.

And in a region where air quality has improved in the past several decades, but still ranks among the worst in the country, the monitors yielded some good news about air quality in a few buildings Downtown.

The indicator light, for all places tested by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was green.

The only time the air monitor turned red was after a Sharpie pen was waved next to the sensor.

If the monitor flashes red or yellow in a room, it's time to open a door or turn on a ventilating fan, said Susan Adams, who works for St. Louis-based Butterfly Energy Works, which sold the air monitors to the Heinz Endowments.

The company has been selling air monitors for about a year, she said. Since most of their orders come through the website, it's difficult to tell who their customer base is, but the company sends the devices all over the world.

The monitors cost $32 each and can be purchased through the company's website at

Most people are likely using the monitors to gauge air quality in their home and office, she said. They can be used outside, but they are designed for indoor spaces where gases are less likely to dissipate quickly.

The Breathe Project is mostly focused on outdoor air quality, but the air monitors should get people thinking about the quality of the air they are breathing, Mr. Johnson said.

"It's more just saying, 'Hey, there are chemicals around us,' " he said.

Kaitlynn Riely: or 412-263-1707.


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