ROCIS: What I learned

Let’s start with a bit of trivia – True or False: According to the EPA, the air inside the typical home is just as polluted as the air outside.

The answer is False, but maybe not for the reason you think.

Believe it or not, according to the EPA, air inside the average home is two to five times more polluted than the air outside. I learned firsthand about this through participation in the second round of the ROCIS Low Cost Monitoring Project.

That’s a lot of words that didn’t mean a lot to me at first, so let’s break it down.

We’re Talking Air Quality Here

ROCIS stands for Reducing Outdoor Contaminants in Indoor Spaces. The point of the Low Cost Monitoring Project (LCM) is to better understand how to use low cost particle and air quality monitors (which are relatively new technologies) in the homes of average consumers both to help them understand air quality and to empower them to reduce particles.

Low Cost Monitoring

The LCM Project is broken up into different rounds. This particular one is round 2. We were given 3 main objectives and a GIANT bag full of monitoring equipment. These were the objectives:

  1.  Understand how to empower occupants
  2.  Collect baseline data re indoor vs. outdoor particle counts
  3.  Explore the impact of interventions

Here’s what was in the giant bag:

  • 3 Dylos air quality monitors – measures particles above 0.5 microns (um) and above 2.5 um
  • 2 Speck air quality monitors – measures particles .3 um to 3 um
  • 1 Radon monitor – provides 1 day, 7 day and long-term average radon level
  • 1 CO monitor – monitors low level carbon monoxide (CO) down to 7 parts per million

Why this is cool

A) Because particles in the air are bad for you. Pittsburgh has pretty terrible air quality, in comparison to the rest of the country (thanks, industry-heavy history!). Particles that are smaller than 10 um can actually get stuck in your lungs! Most of the time, you have no idea you’re even breathing them in. These can lead to serious problems over long periods of time, especially for the young, old or those with respiratory ailments.

B) Air particulate pollution is hard to measure, and measurement tools are hard to access for individual homeowners. They are expensive and sometimes can be confusing to interpret. The ROCIS folks are doing a great job testing out strategies and tools, and working on ways to make this information and these resources available to the general public, at reduced cost.

C) I learned a lot! Particle pollution was a foreign topic to me, but after only a few weeks, I feel informed, educated and ready to take on sources of pollution. I’ve become more aware of how my behavior influences particle levels in my home, and some easy changes I can make that greatly reduces them.

About the project

There were 10 of us participating, from a variety of different organizations and walks of life. Not all of us were air quality gurus, and some of us barely knew what we were getting into! We all learned a lot about ourselves, the air quality in and around our homes and how our daily lives and habits influenced the air quality in our immediate surroundings.

I, personally, will always remember walking into my house one evening and being absolutely horrified at the insanely high particle levels on the monitors (I think I actually screamed) – only to discover that my roommate was frying a piece of tilapia in the kitchen – a full two rooms away from where the monitors were set up. Check out that spike!

Air Quality ROCIS

So what can you do?

  • Be Informed. Read the ROCIS website – it’s full of great information, has contact info for a lot of people working in the arena and is a fantastic resource for those interested in learning more about indoor air quality. is another tremendous resource. From explanations of particle pollution to daily air quality scores, and everything in between, you can find out a lot about the air quality where you live. You can also download the Speck Sensor app, which will tell you the AQI score for your area. You can search by address or zip code, similar to’s site.
  • Be Smart. On poor air quality days, avoid intense, outdoor physical activity around rush hour. Keep your thermostat a few degrees cooler in the winter and warmer in the summer. Avoid burning candles! Use HEPA filters in your home.
  • Take Action. Check out a speck sensor from the Squirrel Hill Carnegie Library. For 3 weeks, you can measure and track the air quality inside your home, and see how your behavior influences it.
  • Get Involved. Groups like GASP, The Breathe Project and Penn Environment are fighting the Clean Air fight every day.
  • Make Changes. Change your transportation – riding a bike or walking short distances can cut down on exhaust pollution from cars. Add some houseplants – NASA has a list of house plants that are really great for indoor air quality.

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