Airborne Chemical Cocktail
When I first learned about Volatile Organic Compounds – and the problem of toxic materials off-gassing and contributing to unhealthy, and even hazardous, indoor air quality – I felt alarmed. My inclination was to throw out everything from my toxic bed to my plastic yoga matt. But because this was quite a few years ago and most green furniture options were very expensive, big ticket items like my bed or couch had to stay. I made do, and focused on making the changes possible within my means.
Knowing as much as I did about the toxicity of the materials in my home (despite my best efforts to minimize them), I’ve been living with perpetual low-grade anxiety about the things I have not been able to control. And although over the years I’ve managed to relax about not having a 100% toxin free home, I’ve continued to wonder about the quality of the indoor air I’m exposed to most.
Enter Sprimo Personal Air Monitor
Fortuitously a couple months ago I received an email from a company called Sprimo, an air quality focused tech startup in Silicon Valley, with the invitation to be one of 7 people to test their new Personal Air Monitor (PAM). Naturally, I was thrilled to learn about the device! Finally I would have a tool to measure just how much off-gassing I’m being exposed to, and have the motivation to go further with my efforts to create a cleaner home air environment.
Before you dive into this rather LONG post, you should know that Sprimo is currently running a Kickstarter Campaign through May 20th, where you can get your own Sprimo PAM by supporting the project with just $30.
If you’re at all curious, I urge you to support Sprimo’s Kickstarter Campaign and be one of the first people to get your very own Sprimo PAM. Similar to Waze, the more of us that take part in this project, the likelier we are to see cleaner air in the future.
Making empowered decisions about air quality
After all those years of VOC anxiety, to my surprise, the Personal Air Monitor showed rather low VOC readings throughout my apartment! And even really low in my open living room and kitchen area. Although the majority of my furniture is either solid wood or vintage and nearing the end of it’s off gassing cycle, I’m currently living in an apartment that was not likely painted with low VOC paint (though not freshly painted when we moved in) and is furnished with the standard synthetic doors, cupboards and floor varnishes found in rental flats.
I was quite certain that the VOCs in my apartment would be relatively high, and suspected that the meter I received must have been a dud when the readings were coming up confusingly low. But after using Sprimo’s PAM for some time and taking it into a range of different environments, it became quite clear that not all spaces that we expect to be high in VOCs are going to be.
Measure, Move, Repeat
After monitoring the air repeatedly in a set of places, and being able to reproduce largely similar results, I began to have more faith in the low VOC readings produced throughout much of my apartment. Sprimo Air Quality Scores are modeled after these Industry Standard for Air Quality ratings:
- Good 0-50
- Moderate 51-100
- Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups 101-150
- Unhealthy 151-200
- Very Unhealthy 201-300
- Hazardous 301-500
Ratings + possible contributing conditions
Our bedroom consistently rated higher than the living room, roughly 15-40, still well below the 50 mark.
- There is a closet in this room that contains some photo equipment and art, along with some synthetic items. It’s closed but unless it was hermetically sealed, any gasses are sure to leak. The closet itself rated at about 50.
- This room has a small window that we don’t open on a regular basis. When the reading turned out high, after opening the window the rating would gradually decrease.
- The furniture is mid-century and older, but we have an old toxic mattress. (Which I’m swapping out in the coming month. More info on this coming your way very soon – older is not better when it comes to mattresses, some of the toxic chemicals mattresses are made with only start to break down and off-gass later in the life cycle.)
Readings in our office were erratic and would range from 8 – 400+. This strange output again made me think that the Sprimo was broken, but it happened quite a few times in this space. I never figured out the cause of this because it didn’t line up with when my computer was on, or being placed closer or further from the computer or hard drives (computers are notorious off-gassing machines).
- This room has some solid wood, untreated and metal furniture, but it also has a couple pieces that are made with synthetic materials and particle board. In particular my standing desk has an Ikea particle board surface. Perhaps it goes through waves of off-gassing?
- There is however a large window in this room, that’s frequently open.
Living Room + Kitchen
The living room/ kitchen area consistently produced low readings in the range of 0-15. Which at first gave me the sense that the device wasn’t working properly, but given the air flow in this room and the fact that outdoor air generally read close to zero in my neighborhood, in end these low readings made sense.
- This room has a sliding glass window that’s open most days with plenty of air flow.
- The only toxic piece of furniture in this room is a roughly 4 year old Ikea couch.
- There are two walls of synthetic kitchen cupboards.
- The counter tops are tile, not toxic Formica.
Both our cars read about 50 on most occasions when the windows were closed. They’re both older cars that have had the chance to off-gass, nonetheless all those glues and synthetic materials continue to produce some gasses.
Outside the home
Other places where I used Sprimo’s PAM included my Yogaworks studio (0-10), grocery stores (10-50), a holistic pet supply store with open doors (10-20), Petco with no open doors (40-90) and coffee shops (10-20).
The results were consistent for each space, but not every place read how you’d expect. Some were really high, while others were surprisingly low. This was really interesting to see because it helped me to understand that, at least as far as VOCs are concerned, the world is not quite as toxic as it had been in my mind. It also became quite clear that spaces with good air flow showed dramatically reduced VOC measurements.
Know Your VOCs
Nearly all contemporary furniture is made of particle board or plywoods compressed with formaldehyde based glues. Fabrics and carpets are sprayed with toxic fire retardants. While conventional paints and varnishes are a brew of chemicals so toxic that it would make you swoon if you knew the full scope of potential adverse health effects. These are just some common sources of VOCs.
Volatile Organic Compounds are a broad class of gasses emitted from chemicals commonly found in most homes and in extremely high concentrations in places like malls, offices and cars. These chemicals participate in atmospheric photochemical reactions which can dramatically effect your health, and especially the health of babies or other groups with a compromised immune system.
Typically they are found in:
- glues in furniture and building materials
- fire-retardants on fabrics, rugs and carpets
- toxic cleaning supplies
- varnishes & paints
- exhaust from gasoline powered tools
- cigaret smoke
Sprimo PAM measures a range of VOCs and indoor gasses, including these chemicals common to the toxic materials listed above:
- Ethyl acetate
- Methylene chloride
Although the Sprimo PAM measures all the above VOCs and, “aggregates the data along with temperature & relative humidity into one easy to understand Air Quality Score,” it does not display individual components or specific pollutants. So with my office for example, I’ve been left guessing as to what’s causing the repeated mysterious spikes in VOC. Is it my computer? Is it my new standing desk? Hard to say.
Mold, Allergens, Particulates & Ozone
It’s important to note that the Sprimo monitoring device only picks up on VOCs. It’s not including other air quality issues in the calculation. Being aware of this, it was useful to learn that once outdoors VOC levels drop – even on a polluted city street. Making it pretty obvious that to reduce VOC exposure, air flow is key.
So although Sprimo PAM senses airborne toxins and chemicals in the form of gasses, it does not pick up on the following:
- atmospheric particulate matter
- carbon monoxide & dioxide
- metallic carbonates
- allergens/ pollen
Some molds produce gasses such as hydrogen sulfide (H2S) and ammonia (NH3), but you would not be able to depend on Sprimo to detect mold in your space. In particular because the app does not supply you with a summary of specify gasses contributing to the reading.
VOCs And Your Health
I can’t go into detail on how VOCs effect your health in this post, but if you’ve ever felt dizzy or come down with a stomach ache after being in a toxic air environment, you’ve experienced some degree of VOC poisoning. Long term and short term Adverse Health Effects of Breathing VOCs include:
- Heart attack or stroke
- Harm to unborn fetus
- Hormone disruption
- Headache/ Dizziness/ Fatigue
- Burning eyes/ Irritated nose and throat
- Allergic skin reaction
- Shortness of breath
- Nausea/ Vomiting
- Bloody nose
- Numerous other disorders
Personal Air Map
Another feature you’ll be able to use once Sprimo PAM is released and data becomes available, is a crowd sourced map of air quality local to your area and across the globe. Although in the immediate future this may not be very useful to you, unless of course there’s a catastrophic event where a chemical plant goes up in flames or some other such incident, over time this mapping feature could prove extremely powerful.
For example it would be useful in knowing if a business you frequent has particularly consistent poor air quality. But even more so, if Sprimo PAM takes off and enough data is collected it could be critical to consumers vying for cleaner air quality standards. As people become more informed this tool will likely spurr consumers to take more aggressive action.
You won’t have to participate and share your data, but it will be available to you. You’ll have the option to view a map of your personal PAM readings, or the crowd sourced data, or both.
The solution! Personal Air Purification
Although Sprimo PAM can supply you with the data needed to understand how your air quality measures up, I’m also excited to share that Sprimo has a Personal Air Purification system in development!
Many of us sit at a desk for 8 or more hours per day. Be it in a home office or outside workplace, chances are that you’re inhaling a fairly high amount of VOCs during that time. Next consider the bedroom. You spend roughly another 8 hours in this room, in all likelihood with closed windows – and let’s face it, the majority of us are sleeping on toxic beds, alongside high VOC furniture, floors, etc.
That’s 16 hours of your day in confined spaces, where you have the opportunity to improve air quality. If you’re using the Sprimo PAM, the sensor used in the Personal Air Monitor will be the same as the sensor in the Personal Air Purifier. So it will pick up all the same VOCs listed for PAM, but will also filter out particulates.
What’s great is that this Air Purifying device will be silent and won’t put out ozone or have some of the other issues I’ve encountered with current technology. Which means that it won’t keep you up at night and you’ll be able to use it in an open layout workspace! Finally, providing you with a solution for that nagging feeling that the air in your office is making you sick.
I’d really like to have access to a summary of the particular gasses detected. This type of detailed output would help me as a consumer to take more targeted action depending on what chemicals are most concentrated. Hopefully future iterations will provide this info.
On a cosmetic note, a phone case that can house the monitor would be genius, but even a key chain case for just the PAM would be helpful. The gadget is quite small and easy to loose track of. Thankfully I managed to hold onto mine with all that moving around!
Device Compatibility & Specs
Currently Sprimo is compatible with: iPhone 7, 7Plus, 6, 6s, 6 Plus, 6s Plus, 5, 5c and 5s iPhone SE.
Sprimo plans to release an Android compatible version of PAM later in 2017.
It will work with your iPad with a Lightning connector, although the app and UI is primarily designed for iPhones.
Temperature can be displayed in °C or °F.
The device measures: 30mm x 24mm x 5 mm (1.2 x 0.9 x 0.2 inches)
You’ve made it to the end of this post! That must be an indication that VOCs and Sprimo are of interest to you. Like I said above, if you’re at all curious, I hope that you’ll to support Sprimo’s Kickstarter Campaign, and join me and Sprimo in the mission to map and clean up our air quality.