Wildfire smoke is becoming a more prevalent and frequent issue for western states in the United States and is spreading to areas impacted by drought. The bipartisan Clean Air Act, signed into law in 1970, made remarkable progress in cutting down on health-damaging pollution. In fact, the act targeted and helped reduce tiny particulate matter (PM2.5) by roughly 40% since 2000. However, according to a new study published in September 2023 in Nature, smoke from wildfires has erased roughly 25% of the Clean Air Act’s progress. According to the study, this effect is even more dramatic in Western states such as California, Washington, and Oregon, where wildfire smoke has introduced enough pollution into the atmosphere to nullify nearly half of the overall improvements in air quality achieved since 2000. 

Not only does this mean that going outside can be dangerous for people with certain health conditions, the elderly, or children, but it also can have a negative impact on indoor air quality. Recognizing that your workplace’s indoor air quality may decrease due to wildfire smoke in the area is key for the health and safety of your workers.  

How Do You Monitor Indoor Air Quality? 

Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) devices can help you measure your indoor air quality so you can make informed decisions that protect your workers and meet current state occupational requirements. Specifically, these devices on the market aim to measure the particles of wildfires that are a by-product of wildfire smoke. Wildfire smoke consists of particles ranging from 100 microns to less than 2.5 microns. Particles smaller than 2.5 microns are able to infiltrate deep into the lungs where they can cause scarring and inflammation that lead to negative health outcomes. 

These particles can consist of:  

  • Soot and Ash 
  • Metals 
  • Dust and Soils 
  • Mold and pollen,  
  • Acids 
  • Hydrocarbons 

To learn more about how to improve your office indoor air quality in general, check out our Indoor Air Quality Inspection Checklist for more information. 

See the IAQ Inspection Checklist

Recently, Oregon and California OSHA state plans passed wildfire smoke standards requiring employers to measure and protect employees from PM2.5 exposure. Both states allow the use of the EPA NowCast Air Quality Index (AQI) as well as Direct-read IAQ instruments to measure the mass concentration (µg/m3) of particles to comply with the regulations.  

Overall, whether looking at direct read instruments to stay compliant or to protect your employees’ health, these devices should be able to measure the concentration of airborne particle sizes ranging from 0.3µm-2.5µm. Devices should always be used according to manufacturers’ instructions for measurement.  

However, this can create some cost barriers for small businesses and consumers due to annual calibration requirements or maintenance. Luckily, the proliferation of IAQ devices has exploded in the past few years to allow more options beyond commercial-grade options. However, this expanded market can also make choosing a device overwhelming and confusing. 

For example, a search on one online sales platform returns 268 different IAQ monitoring products. However, not all IAQ monitors are made equal. In the age where manufacturers advertise a lower price point or better technology to stand out, it is hard to determine what instruments provide accurate measurement and which are missing the mark. 

How to Choose The Right IAQ Monitor? 

To help wade through the smoke, here are 5 key factors to look for when purchasing an IAQ or Direct-read instrument for wildfire smoke: 

  1. Measures particles ranging from <0.3µg to 2.5µg in µg/m3 (Some may measure particle count, which is not useful) 
  2. Product uses an optical sensor (laser particle counter) 
  3. Product is accurate within 20%+- 
  4. The manufacturer provides information on the specific brand of the sensor in use 
  5. Information on how it was calibrated (smoke chamber, NIST tracible standard, Uniform polymer beads) 

When it comes to scientific measurements, accuracy is paramount. Numbers mean nothing if they aren’t a reflection of reality. It’s even more important when your goal is to protect your worker’s health and/or stay compliant with OSHA regulations by monitoring indoor air quality. With the prevalence of wildfires increasing across the globe due to climate change, monitoring particulate matter from wildfire smoke will likely stay vital for years to come.  

If you’re interested in learning more, check out our Industrial Hygiene services at Antea Group. There, you can get an expert evaluation and recommendations on quality measurement devices, rather than taking the risk of buying a device that has claims beyond its actual capability. After all, when it comes to the air you’re breathing indoors, accuracy matters.

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