Check your air

Air pollution tops the 2019 List of 10 Threats to Global Health released by the World Health Organization (WHO), with even pandemics and HIV behind it. So there is a reason the world pays so much attention to monitoring air quality. According to experts, the global market for air pollution control equipment will exceed $20 bln next year. CityAir, a Russian developer of eco-monitoring networks, states ‘digitizing air quality throughout the planet’ as its mission. A two years’ old startup, it has already deployed experimental monitoring stations in Russia, Kazakhstan, Europe and the US, teaming up with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Novosibirsk State University, and implementing contracts from MegaFon and Donstroy. So what threats are in the air these days? When is it easier to breathe, in winter or in summer? Is it possible to install eco-monitoring stations in each home? Invest Foresight discussed these and many other topics with the founder of CityAir, Dmitry Trubitsyn.

Theory and practice

Dmitry Trubitsyn, a physicist, went to graduate school at Novosibirsk State University, but at some point decided that academic activity was not the only way to benefit people, and switched from theory to practice. Dmitry founded the company TION, which develops and manufactures equipment for creating a healthy microclimate in apartments, hospitals and offices (for example, one of the devices, a “breezer,” ventilates the room with warm air free from pollutants and allergens). Yet, after some time he started thinking that home microclimate issues were not big enough for him; he put together a team of researchers, exerts in ecology and eco-monitoring, and began to cooperate with leading world laboratories – this is how CityAir was established.The company’s production facility is based in the Novosibirsk Academic Town while the commercial unit is in Moscow.

“CityAir produces basic monitoring stations that deliver real-time data about the quality of air to an IT platform. Thanks to this data, mathematical models map out movement of main pollutants. Our stations are not only very accurate but also compact and affordable. They are about the size of a shoe box and cost around RUR 1 mio ($14K). For comparison, conventional monitoring stations are as big as train cars and cost between RUR 10 and 15 mio ($140K to $210K),” Trubitsyn explains.

CityAir has 20 employees. The company is not relying on third-party investors and is developing using resources provided by shareholders. Dmitry hopes that the startup will break even by the end of the year. He plans to conquer the European market which he believes is more responsive and mature.

“In Europe you don’t have to explain why you need air quality monitoring stations. There, it is important to demonstrate how your product is better than others. And our detectors are truly great; they can operate at temperatures in the range from -50 to +50 degrees Celsius. They are built on multiple complex engineering solutions that make measurements more precise and thorough. Moreover, we are developing our own software for controlling the detectors and adjusting services using mathematical modelling. This means our product not only collects data but also helps with making decisions. We are also interested in becoming a marketplace in this area. Today there is a demand for unifying data about the quality of air; however, there is no consensus in the market yet and everybody uses their own measurement standards,” Trubitsyn says.

Elementary particles

Over 90% of the world’s population lives in areas where the air quality is below the WHO standards. The environmental monitoring stations can provide detailed information about the composition of the air we breathe. A mixture of toxic gases can contain ozone, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. All of them are toxic, harmful if inhaled, irritate airways and are used to measure air pollution in accordance to the WHO standards. But, according to doctors, our health is even more threatened by particulate matters (PM2.5) of less than 2.5 nm in diameter due to their ability to penetrate deep into the lungs and blood streams unfiltered. Half of all lung cancer cases are caused by these particles inhaled by residents of large cities. But there is also a less obvious negative impact of PM2.5 on our health, among them is the growing risk of cardiovascular, infectious and even mental diseases.

Ultrafine particles can contain microscopic particles of soot, asphalt, as well as sulfates, nitrates and heavy metal compounds. According to the World Health Organization, the average daily concentration of PM2.5 should be no more than 25 μg/m³, but it is often exceeded.

“A ten-fold increase in the concentration of air pollutants is often caused by not an environmental disaster or an accident at a large industrial plant, but…by a calm weather. It is very bad if the city does not have natural ventilation. Strong winds clean the air,” Trubitsyn says.

Breathe deeper, summer is coming

Rain and strong winds clean the air of pollutants. But what about snow?

A snowstorm with strong winds can slightly reduce the level of pollutants as well – yet, contrary a popular belief, air pollution is worse in winter than in summer due to the heating and the factor that cold air moves slower than warm air; it is denser and the pollution does not dissipate. This is proven by data from environmental monitoring stations: only 34% of ‘perfect days’ was registered in Moscow this winter, while 51% was observed in summer.

Overall, according to auditors of the Russian Accounts Chamber, increased air pollution levels are observed in 46 Russian cities. The global economy loses trillions of dollars due to diseases, sick pay, and environment-related deaths. Diagnostics is the first step towards improving the situation, Dmitry believes.

“Perhaps, if data on air quality is made public, people will become more aware of the issue and will at least stop parking their vehicles near children’s playgrounds. Currently, our monitoring stations are installed in the Nabokov low-rise residential building in Moscow, and residents can monitor air quality both indoors and outside. Air in apartments can be cleaned with the use of special devices; people can wear masks to protect themselves from air pollution in the street if the situation is too bad. It is definitely possible to install such air quality monitoring stations across the city. We are ready to offer co-financing for installing monitoring units to local communities in residential compounds. With one station used for several residential buildings in one district according to the sharing economy principle, residents in each apartment will have to pay as little as RUR 10 ($0.13) per month,” Trubitsyn says.

The cities of Krasnoyarsk, Norilsk and Bratsk are at the top of Russia’s air pollution ranking. Those with the most favorable environmental conditions include Yoshkar-Ola, Tambov and Saransk, while Moscow and St Petersburg rank in the middle. The good news is that the Clean Air project, part of the Ecology national project, aims to reduce emissions of hazardous air pollutants in 12 large Russian industrial cities by 20% by 2024.   

By Nataliya Sysoeva

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