Air quality indices (AQI) in Canada and around the world

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Who is IQAir?

IQAir is a privately-held company based in Switzerland with manufacturing facilities in Germany. While the website goes to great lengths in establishing the need for clean air filtration in our lives, and in how their organization is more like a public service, they are still a family-owned company, with no presence in the stock market, so they will never have the need to make concrete information on their earnings or revenue, public.

Going to their website, they have extensive information on the effects of good and bad air, what factors affect air quality, and so on. And this is to say nothing about their wonderfully-presented air quality measurements, dotted all over a global map, allowing the user to zoom into any city and neighbourhood to view the air quality on a street corner where someone had purchased one of IQAir’s air quality monitoring devices, and has, supposedly, placed it on their balcony or somewhere outdoors.

In the end, the grave concern over air quality, which is something which has been on people’s minds in North America these days, is being used to push product. They sell air filtration devices for your home, replacement filters, and even face masks (a dozen N95 masks sell for $99CAD — pricey, I think). I noticed their household air filtration units can set you back as much as $1799CAD. But if you really want to spend money, you can get a whole-home HVAC system for as much as $4500CAD. They sell to homes around the world. This amounts to big money, and fear of the effects of air pollution is a cash cow that will forever give milk.

The information they provide on air quality, far from being a public service, ends up being promotional, with the real sevice being to the company, to sell products that will solve the problem they describe on their website. Thus, while being science-like in their presentation, they stop short of being truly scientific, because of the inherent bias of making a profit. They are a business, not a universtiy. On the face of it, the data gathered consists of air monitors purchased by individuals who purportedly all dutifully read the instructions and set up the monitors where and how they ought to be set up. I am sure that no representative of IQAir came out to a neighbourhood in Karachi, Beijing or Mexico City to set up these monitors for their clients to ensure a proper setup.

Of course, once properly set up, these air monitors “call home”, meaning the data is likely displayed directly on the device, and likely to an app on their cell phone, but it is also sent directly to IQAir, so they can add you to their world map for measuring air quality. But this application of IOT is specious in that a device that you paid for is sending information back to the company to help them promote their product and establish their brand as being the leaders in air quality management.

Maybe this still sounds innocent on some level, until perhaps they sell that information to your insurance company, and they in turn jack up your premiums when they see what crappy air you’re breathing in. While I am being speculative, what would stop them? They’re not accountable to their shareholders, because there are no shareholders. They’re family-owned. I wouldn’t be surprised if insurance companies aren’t already banging on their doors willing to pay IQAir top dollar for that information. Including: who owns that device? and does that person have a policy with us?

It would be fantastic to be able to seek out independent studies of air quality on such a grand scale. But for now I express a concern that we appear to be conflating a profit-motivated promotion with a public service.

Meanwhile, it is also likely that their IQAir Foundation is also a tax shelter. Pushing its site visitors to “join the movement!”, such community activists still need to purchase an air monitor at $419CAD a pop (with same-day shipping) and set it up for the purpose of “community air monitoring”. For some, 420 bux is a hard pill to swallow, but it is a small price to pay for their small contribution to the world. IQAir’s complaint is that there needs to be more of these stations in the world. Of course, this is because not enough citizens are doing their part and buying their air monitors. But of all of the sales gimmicks, this has to be one of the best. I can only imagine the number of salesmen in other markets selling anything else that could only wish that they could so nicely hook up community activism to the command to that community to “buy our stuff”. I have to admit, it is pure genius.

But how do IQAir air purifiers rate at cleaning air?

The only IQAir product tested by Consumer Reports was their IQAir HealthPro Plus Air Purifier, currently priced at $1714CAD and received a rating of 70. For comparison, the one I own with about the same score, is a Honeywell InSight HPA5350BC which was retailing for about $420CAD and had a CR rating of 71. I happened to buy it on sale at Canadian Tire for $280CAD. The Honeywell has a 5-year limited warranty. The higher priced IQAir model has a 10-year warranty.

IQAir was ahead in “predicted reliability” and owner satisfaction (both 5/5, compared with Honeywell’s 3/5). But in many places where it counted, the Honeywell scored equal or better. They rated the same in removal of dust, pollen and smoke (5/5), whereas the Honeywell was better at doing that with the fan at low speed. The Honeywell’s fan ran quieter at high speeds, giving it 3/5, compared with IQAir’s 2/5 for that criteria. Both air purifiers are recommended for large rooms, but the Honeywell was cheaper to own, having an annual cost of $200 for replacement filters and the like; compared with $247 for the IQAir. While the IQAir boasts a remote control (the Honeywell doesn’t), Honeywell has an automatic mode which senses the air quality and automatically adjusts the fan speed to suit (from personal experience I can tell you it works as advertised), while the IQAir tested had no such thing. The Honeywell at 20 pounds is lighter than the IQAir at 34. As for energy star compliance, the Honeywell has it and the IQAir model they tested didn’t have it, although I noticed many energy star compliant air purifiers on the IQAir website, so this could be an older model.

The filters themselves: CR says Honeywell has “multiple pleated filters”, but I can tell you there are exactly 3 pleated HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters that came in the box, and it takes all 3 to place in the unit. IQAir’s HEPA filters are also similarly pleated, but CR says they also have “carbon” with it. I checked IQAir’s website, and the filters for the HealthPro appear to consist of mini-pleated glass microfiber, with the activated carbon filter as a seperate filter. IQAir does not recommend a replacement timeline, but on the “3” setting, they can last for what works out to every year and 8 months. Compare with the Honeywell HEPA filters which have to be replaced every 12 months. There is also a pre-filter with the Honeywell that has to be replaced every 3 months. Even with more frequent changes, Honeywell’s cost of ownership is still cheaper.

In all, I can only conclude that you should shop around, compare, and don’t think an expensive unit is necessarily better in every way from a unit that is 1/4 of the price. If you know people who have used such products, ask them what their experience with it was like. Ask yourself: what are your criteria for a good air purifier? For me, I frankly don’t care about having one with a remote control, since I already have too many remote controls for other things, and it is not something I would use frequently, so I am likely to lose it anyway. I just like my air purifier to sit there and do its job while I go about my life. Having an automatic mode was perfect for that. I can cook, clean, open the balcony door, and it just “does the right thing”. I am not sure of such automation is on the most recent IQAir models.

The reach of IQAir

IQAir has had enough data collection that its AQI rankings have been cited by The New York Times and  other major media.

Two mysteries are: 1) how easy/difficult is it for an average consumer to set up and collect the data; and 2) what criteria goes into an “Air Quality Index”. We can see that it is a number. It starts at zero (many locations have a zero rating) and ends as high as you like. I don’t see where this is explained. Indices, like the Consumer Price Index, for example, set “100” as a “standard” number or reference number to determine price increases and decreases. But for AQI, a rating of “100” borders between moderate and unhealthy.

Depicting two Alberta wildfires close to Edmonton, Grand Prairie and Red Deer, with the air quality detectors recording the air as very safe (green) in nearly all directions. You might even notice that some locations even have an AQI of 0 (zero). Further east, Prince Albert, Saskatchewan and Saskatoon have ratings around 110-117 (moderate), on par with the Greater Toronto Area.

The IQAir website wins top marks for presenting its data in a way that is visually presentable to average people. But I am impressed about this as a promotional tool, not as a scientific study. Mostly because what constitutes an AQI score appears to be a mystery, and it shouldn’t be. The best I can come up with is “low number equals good”, “high number equals bad”. In British Columbia, I saw many communities with AQI ratings below 50 (good), surrounding an active forest fire. Since it also shows wind direction, many communities still show green downwind of a fire.

AQI’s of different kinds

Environment Canada keeps track of an Air Quality Index, scaled from 1 to 10, with numbers above 10 possible. Numbers from 1 to 3 are low risk; 4 to 6 is moderate risk, and 7 to 10 is considered high risk. Above is “very high” risk. I had found at least a bit of information on how forecasts are made, and at least some clues as to how the data is gathered here. Right now, Environment Canada has the AQI at 6 for Toronto, and 5 here in Mississauga. For the “5” rating, they had issued a special Air Quality Statement with their weather reporting today.


What are your thoughts?