Aclima: How to measure air quality in a crisis

By measuring air pollution levels in neighborhoods across California, Aclima hopes to use the data to improve air quality insights for better decision-making.

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As images of wildfire smoke plumes and orange-colored skies appear all over social media from California suburbs for the fourth straight week, a white hybrid sedan drives through Bay Area neighborhoods collecting air samples. The task? Measure the fluctuating levels of PM2.5, aka: fine particular matter, a near invisible air pollutant in wood smoke that is smaller than a 50th of a grain of sand.

“Measurement is an important part of the solution,” says Davida Herzl, CEO and co-founder of Aclima, a breakthrough environmental intelligence company that has developed a networked, mobile air quality lab.

“Different events result in different pollutants, and wood smoke translates to higher levels of PM2.5,” she says. “Those particles can enter the bloodstream, impact circulation and potentially cross the blood-brain barrier and go into the brain.”


Air pollution and climate change was listed as one of the top 10 threats to global health in 2019, according to the World Health Organization. But in 2020, Aclima’s ongoing studies revealed that there’s never been a year with both some of the lowest air pollution levels in the state as well as some of the highest. The pandemic and mandatory shelter-in-place caused a steep drop in traffic-related pollutants like nitrogen dioxide levels in California—which is good news. But that good news is now blunted by the high level of pollutants caused by the wildfires. And new research shows even a small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 leads to a large increase in the COVID-19 death rate, according the National Institute of Health.

“There's some analysis to be done,” Herzl says. “Did these two events sort of wash each other out in terms of their impact? We don’t know yet, but we have the data to find out.”


A solution on the move

Aclima’s sensor technology measures and analyzes air pollutants on the move at the hyper local level. As the fleet of drivers drive the Aclima cars through their communities, a variety of sensors take measurements, each sensor doing its own analysis. Some are using lasers, some are using vision software, but each is collecting gases and solids at the tiniest level.

Aclima is equipped to measure a broad amount of pollutants, such as greenhouse gases, ozone and black carbon. But at different times, depending on different events, different pollutants are more important to measure.


photo provided by Aclima

Right now, about 50 Aclima vehicles are taking in billions of data points throughout California, Mexico and New York, sending the data up to the cloud where government regulation groups can access the data to measure long-term exposure to pollutants at the block-by-block level. Aclima is always on the move, uploading millions of data points per day, or billions per week.

This kind of environmental intelligence—providing fast, reliable data—is a breakthrough in air pollution data collection. For example, Aclima’s data is able to show that air pollution can fluctuate as much as 800% from one city block to the next.

Herzl says she predicted that the trends we’re seeing now—a pandemic, the effects of accelerating climate change and tensions over racial injustice were coming—but she never thought they’d converge in six months. Ironically, or not, these trends also coincide with her predictions of access to the technology that could help reduce the threats.

“We saw, a decade ago, that all of these things were converging: Cloud computing, sensors, increased and ubiquitous communications, that that would really give us the capacity to essentially take the pulse of the planet,” Herzl says. “And that as the planet became sicker and sicker, that it was going to be critical for us to have that data to really address these issues at the root.”

And because the crises are converging at once, the data is being used to fight what is being referred to as environmental racism. In the short term, the data shows how the wildfires are impacting all the residents in California. But ongoing data shows there are communities that live with these levels of pollution on a persistent basis, Herzl says.

“Frontline communities, communities of color that live across from refineries and oil wells and local sources, they’re exposed to all sorts of toxic and harmful pollutants on a daily basis. There are solutions. We all need to just focus our efforts now. Let’s not pretend it’s not going on anymore and get in there and see what the numbers are.”

What’s next

Moving forward, the hope is that current events along with new hyper local insights will mobilize the public to push for better emissions control legislation.

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“It is the legislation and these new frameworks, the miniaturization of sensor technology, cloud computing, all of these things are critical,” she says.  “So it’s thanks to the fact that we have things like the Verizon network that we’re able to really deliver this data at the scale and speed that we can.”

Watch the conversation

Recently, Verizon and AccuWeather joined Aclima on a live stream to share the latest on the wildfires across weather, air quality and overall response to these unprecedented events.

Watch the replay of the live stream here.

Verizon pledges to be carbon neutral in our operations by 2035, reducing emissions, investing in renewable energy and purchasing carbon offsets. Learn more about our new responsible business plan to drive economic, environmental and social advancement with Citizen Verizon.

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