3 Steps To Demystify Air Quality

  • Air quality is big news globally. We’re increasingly aware of the negative impact poor air quality has on our health and well-being. We’ve all seen the smog in big global cities. We all know someone who has a respiratory illness which makes them more at risk of air pollution.


    But…what is air quality?

    What makes air quality good or bad?

    How do I know what air quality is like near me?


    As with weather, and other environmental factors, air quality can be complex. So, let’s demystify it in three simple steps.



    Think about weather – what is weather? Without thinking, we can break weather down into several components – rainfall, temperature, humidity, cloud cover & wind speed. We can do this easily as we often see weather forecasts on the TV, hear weather alerts on the radio, see weather warnings on our phones and double-check our weather apps before leaving the house. Weather is well understood.


    Air quality today isn’t well understood. But, we can do the same for air quality as we do for weather – we can break air quality down into several components:



    known as Particulate Matter



    There are two types:

    1. PM2.5 is particulate matter 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter – these are super fine particles that can be inhaled into the lungs
    2. PM10 is particulate matter 10 micrometers or less in diameter – these are larger particles that can be trapped in the nose, mouth or throat


    For comparison, an average human hair is 75 micrometers in diameter so the finer dust is often too small to see without a microscope


    Particulate matter is both natural & man-made:

     -natural sources include dust storms & pollen

     -human sources include vehicle emissions & industrial processes


    Nitrogen Oxides NOx is the main contributer to air pollution


    Nitrogen oxide is a gas that contributes to smog.


    Breathing in NOx increases the likelihood of respiratory problems:

     -lung inflammation

     -reduced immunity to lung infections, colds, flu & bronchitis


    NOx is increased by

     -burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas)

     -vehicle emissions

     -manufacturing processes


    Dust & gas, and their constituents of PM2.5, PM10 & NO2, are air quality indicators – the way to make air quality measurable and therefore trackable. There are other pollutants used in the world, such as Sulphur Dioxide (used in industrial regions) and Ozone, but the ones listed above are the most well-used in the UK & Europe today.



    To start with, we can use an Air Quality Index, such as the one created by DEFRA in the UK – this provides a guide to air pollution in your area and what this means for you, your friends, colleagues and family:

    Source: DEFRA UK Air Information Resource


    But, when we think of anything as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, without thinking, we tend to compare the current situation with what’s ‘normal’. A good day in the UK is sunny. A good day in the desert is cool. A good day in the winter Alps is snowy. So, whilst there are EU standards for the main air quality indicators listed above, it also depends on what your ‘normal’ is too.


    Air quality varies massively depending on where you are…think of:

    -the centre of a big global city

    -an industrial region

    -a remote countryside location

    -the desert


    So, just as you’d look at the average weather conditions for a location, it’s helpful to look at the average air quality conditions for a specific location.



    Instinctively, we all understand that air quality varies by location. Even within a short distance, we can feel that the air is cleaner when we’re in a park rather than standing on the side of the road. So, a city-wide air quality index isn’t good enough - how do I know what the air quality level is, or what it will be, in my location?


    First of all, what is your location? Most of us have busy lives and rarely stay in one location. Within a day, you could easily be at your house, your office, the shops, a café, the park or a variety of locations. So, you might want to know what air quality looks like within a region, such as this one.


    Source: TCarta air quality platform 2020, ©4EI and KCL 2020.


    Secondly, how much detail do you want to see?

    -A daily average for your area would ensure you can make general health & wellbeing decisions for that day, such as deciding if it’s an outdoors or indoors day

    -A street-level 20m resolution view would enable you to choose which route you walk to work and where you want to have lunch

    On an average or good air quality day, a daily average will probably be sufficient. But on a poor air quality day, you could need the highly detailed view to make more informed decisions, particularly if you, your business or your family are more negatively impacted by air quality.


    Air quality has a massive impact on global organisations.

    Every organisation has a duty of care to their employees, their stakeholders, their customers and the general public.  Whatever sector you’re in, air quality needs to be on your agenda. Whether it’s part of your corporate social responsibility strategy, your sustainability plan, your R&D plan, or your communications, air quality is an important consideration for all global organisations.


    Every organisation creates air pollution.

    Think about:

    -How your employees commute to work

    -How you heat & power your offices

    -How you manufacture & distribute your products & services

    Like it or not, we all contribute to the problem.


    Many organisations mitigate air pollution.

    You can:

    -Offer incentives to employees to encourage them to choose public transport options

    -Choose sustainable energy sources for your offices

    -Reduce your carbon footprint through environmentally conscious business decisions

    We can all make a difference.


    Want more information on air quality for your business?

    Contact us at info@4earthintelligence.com. We provide hyperlocal 20m resolution air quality assessments, and forecasts, for global businesses.