Home buyers can locate valuable information from real estate sites about the neighborhoods in which they would like to live, such as distance to and ratings of local schools and public transit. What about the environmental factors that can impact home owners’ health? Locating and aggregating information about the drinking water quality is relatively easy, by directly contacting or checking the website for the public water system that serves the area.
What about air quality in the surrounding environment?
Being aware of timely and potential air quality levels can help consumers recognize when and where ambient air pollution levels can pose a health concern. “Air pollution has been linked to decreases in lung function and increases in heart attacks” according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).
The main risk factor in lung cancer
The World Health Organization (WHO) reported in the recently updated “Preventing Disease Through Healthy Environments” that 14% of lung cancers are attributable to ambient air pollution. The report also indicates that ambient air pollution is the most important environmental risk factor – high blood pressure, diet, physical activity and tobacco smoke are the highest non-environmental risk factors — and is “responsible for approximately 24% of the global burden of ischaemic heart disease (IHD).” IHD is the leading cause of mortality and disability worldwide according to WHO.
The Air Quality Index (AQI) is a tool used by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other agencies to quantify air quality by categories.
The AQI focuses on five of the air pollutants for which the EPA has set national air quality standards, and include ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and particle pollution.
Information on other air toxics and related estimates of exposure by population group are available through EPA’s National-scale Air Toxics Assessment (NATA). Toxic air pollutants represented through this data source include several substances that may be carcinogenic to humans including benzene, which is found in gasoline, and tetrachloroethylene which is emitted from some dry cleaning facilities.
Where to get information on air quality
Much of the available air quality data can be a bit daunting to home buyers and realtors alike, but EPA along with other agencies and the private sector have created additional tools to inform the public in an easily understandable manner. Several of these helpful tools include:
AirNow — This website reports the AQI forecast for the United States and Canada, and was developed by the EPA along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Park Service, as well as tribal, state, and local agencies. In addition to showing current forecast, the site features an app for Android and iPhone. AirNow has recently expanded to support other countries and regions by creating an international community of users through AirNow International, in order to share and learn air quality data and information from colleagues across the globe.
AirCompare — This website offered by AirNow is intended to help people with planning a move or vacation by comparing air quality between cities, counties, and states. AirCompare allows users to generate reports based on specific health concerns including asthma, heart disease, or for more sensitive populations including the elderly and children. The data source for AirCompare is the Air Quality System (AQS) Data Mart, which contains ambient air pollution data collected from thousands of monitoring stations maintained by air pollution control agencies across the United States. The AQS Data Mart is “designed to make air quality data more accessible to the scientific and technical community” by allowing users to extract data from the database.
Global Health Observatory (GHO) data -– The World Health Organization provides an extensive list of health indicators, including data related to particulate matter via this webpage on the ambient air pollution exposure at city and country levels.
Clean Air Make More — This mobile app for iPhone, iPad, and Android reports real-time air quality and pollution statistics for the City of Phoenix.
Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Air Quality Index Report -– This webpage provides current and historical peak concentration for the critical pollutant as well as corresponding AQI category and ratings for each of the measured pollutants for major metropolitan and regions in Texas. The data is collected from air monitoring stations whose data are reported to EPA.
Participate in the UCLA AirForU study
With so many websites and apps related to air quality, I decided to test a couple sites and apps to see what best suited my personal needs. I downloaded and signed up with the UCLA AirForU app, which I found very easy to use on my iPhone. This app which was developed as part of a research study with the UCLA Institute of Environment and Sustainability creates a personalized history of air quality exposure. By reporting asthma attacks and other daily information, users can contribute to the research via their iPhone or Android.
AirForU research participants are incentivized to respond to daily questions through entries in a monthly raffle drawing. The feature I found most informative was the “Toxics”, which reports manufacturing facilities that emit toxic chemicals based on location and reported through the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) Program.
The TRI tracks the management of over 650 toxic chemicals that pose a threat to human health and environment across various industries, and includes on-site releases through air, surface water, land as well as recycling and treatment methods.
When I directly searched the TRI database for my zip code, no facilities were listed. However, the AirForU app alerted me to the proximity of six facilities within 3 miles of my home, in the next zip code area. I was then able to fine-tune my search within the TRI, and view historical data.
Pigeon Air Patrol to the rescue
In addition to using existing data from AirNow to create map and list interface of air pollution data, innovative technology firm Plume Labs is disrupting pollution monitoring by incorporating racing pigeons and humans to crowdsource data.
On March 14, 2016, Plume Labs released a flock of pollution monitoring pigeons to map pollution for three days in London, England. The Pigeon Air Patrol was equipped with tiny light-weight backpacks containing sensors that monitored and reported back ozone, volatile compounds and nitrogen dioxide, as well as their location.
Crowdsourcing data through wearables
Plume Labs has reached its crowdfunding campaign goal for the human version pollution monitoring program called “London Air Patrol.”
The higher backer levels will receive a sensor and participate in the first beta test of Plume’s personal air pollution tracker, which will essentially crowd-source a live map of air pollution in London.
With all these air quality resources, it would be relatively easy for any tech-savvy real estate website developer to integrate existing data and add this valuable information. An added feature for potential home buyers would be an allergen occurrence and allergy calendar for people susceptible to particular allergies, or link to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America’s ranking of cities according to spring allergies. Providing access to this information in an easily understood manner creates consumers who can make informed decisions about where they live.
Note from the Editor:
The folks at the National Association of Realtors’ Center for Realtor Technology (NAR CRT) are studying this very issue and working with manufacturers, universities, and bright minds. They’re considering how aggregating environmental factors can be inserted into the MLS, standardized, and used. Think about it: Many of us have a Nest thermostat – imagine if data was collected and added to the MLS about a home, or analyzed through the MLS as a neighborhood and given a score. More info means more well educated consumers.