Environment & Science

New mobile air pollution monitor being tested in Los Angeles

An SUV outfitted with pollution monitoring equipment is being tested in Los Angeles by the EPA.
An SUV outfitted with pollution monitoring equipment is being tested in Los Angeles by the EPA.
Jed Kim
An SUV outfitted with pollution monitoring equipment is being tested in Los Angeles by the EPA.
A computer shows real time data on methane levels in the air.
Jed Kim

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The ability to identify pollutants in the air is made difficult by changing conditions and the fact that harmful substances are usually invisible to the naked eye. A new vehicle being tested in Los Angeles may change how air monitoring occurs by providing real time data of toxic substances in the air.

The vehicle, a green Ford Expedition, arrived in Los Angeles last week and has been driving around various sites that are suspected sources of higher-than-average levels of benzene, toluene and methane.

It sports a mast-like antenna that stands about six feet tall in front of the car, adorned with various monitoring devices and GPS mapping equipment. The equipment allows regulators to map pollutants as they drive, as well as conduct real time monitoring at locations of interest.

Government officials said that the real time testing it provides is much faster than current methods and would allow for a more comprehensive understanding of where pollutants are being emitted.

“This vehicle kind of speeds up that process of targeting, and we can cover a lot of ground in an area like Southern California, where there’s many high risk facilities,” said Jared Blumenfeld, regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency.

“It puts us ahead of the game that we’re currently in, which is playing catch up,” Blumenfeld said.

Current methods require regulators to take samples of air from suspected pollution sources and analyze them in a laboratory — a time-intensive process that can still miss when toxins are being released.

“If you take an air canister, and you go back, things may change at the facility, but if you see a high concentration, you may want to go into the facility at that time to see what’s actually happening right then and there,” said Ken Garing, a chemical engineer with the EPA's National Enforcement Investigation Center.

The vehicle, which costs about $250,000, is in Los Angeles for two weeks. The pilot program is intended to show the capabilities of the vehicle. Only about six of the mobile testing vehicles are in existence. 

Blumenfeld said that the information collected by the cars would not be used as evidence in enforcement cases. Rather, they would act as divining tools that would more efficiently direct regulators’ attention.

“The question for EPA is where do we go first? Which facility do we go to? This will help us make that decision,” Blumenfeld said.

The vehicle will stay in Los Angeles until Friday before moving to another region of the country. No plans exist yet for the region to purchase any vehicles for permanent use, but Blumenfeld said the $250,000 price tag seems reasonable.

“That actually sounds manageable even for a budget in these stretched times,” Blumenfeld said. “When you think about what this can do in terms of the amount of ground that it can cover, it’s very efficient. As we’re thinking about where to put resources, I want to make sure that the enforcement folks think that it is worthwhile."

"This is the kind of investment that we definitely want to make,” he said.