I Bought a CO2 Monitor, and It Broke Me

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A few weeks ago, a three-inch square of plastic and metal began, slowly and steadily, turning my life upside down.

The culprit was my portable CO2 monitor, one that had been sitting in my Amazon shopping cart for months. I first looked at the product around the height of the coronavirus pandemic, and thought it could help me identify unventilated public spaces where exhaled breaths were left lingering and the risk of virus transmission was high. But I didn’t spend that $250 until January 2023, when a different set of concerns, about the health risks of gas stoves and indoor air pollution, reached a boiling point. It was as good a time as any to get an air experience in my own home.

I knew from the start that the cramped small apartment where I work remotely was bound to be an air quality disaster. But with the help of the brilliant Aranet4, the brand most indoor air experts swear by, I was sure to fix the spot. When carbon dioxide levels increased, I would crack a window; Whenever I cook on my gas stove, I turn on the range fan. What could be easier? It would basically be like living abroad, with better Wi-Fi. This year, spring cleaning will be a real breeze!

The illusion was shattered minutes after I put the batteries in my new device. Basically, the levels in my apartment were already dancing around 1,200 ppm (ppm)—a concentration that, the device’s user manual told me, was cutting my brain’s cognitive function by 15 percent. Panicked, I opened a window, letting in the frigid New England air. Two hours later, as I shivered in my 48-degree Fahrenheit apartment in a trench coat, ski pants, and woolen socks, typing numbly on the icy keyboard, Aranet hadn’t budged the 1,000 ppm, which is common. safety threshold for many experts. By evening, I had stopped trying to lower my body temperature on my way to clearing the air. But as I tried to sleep in the suffocating trap of the noxious gas I had once called my home, next to a stale bag of the breathing flesh I once called my home, Aranet let out an ominous sound: the ppm climbed again, this time above 1400. My cognitive ability was now off 50 percent, according to the user manual, due to self-poisoning by stagnant air.

By the next morning, I was in despair. This was not the reality I had imagined when I decided to invite Aranet4 to my home. I envisioned the device and me as a team with a common goal: clean, clean air for everyone! But it became clear that I do not have the strength to cheer up the device. This was making me miserable.

[Read: Kill your gas stove]

CO2 monitors are not designed to dictate behaviour; The information they provide is not a perfect read on air quality, indoors or outdoors. And while carbon dioxide can pose some health risks at high levels, it’s just one of many pollutants in the air, and by no means the worst. Others, such as nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, and ozone, can cause more direct harm. Some CO2 trackers, including the Aranet4, don’t account for particulate matter — which means they can’t tell when the air has been cleaned, for example, by a HEPA filter. “It gives you an indication; it’s not the whole story,” says Lynsey Marr, an environmental engineer at Virginia Tech.

However, because carbon dioxide accumulates along with other pollutants, the levels are “a very good proxy for how fresh or stale the air is,” and how hard it is to turn it around, says Paula Olzewski, a biochemist and indoor air-quality expert at the Jones Center. Hopkins Health Security. Aranet4 isn’t as accurate as the $20,000 research-grade carbon dioxide sensor at Marr Lab, but it can come surprisingly close. When Jose Luis Jimenez, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, picked one up three years ago, he was shocked that it could stand up to the machines he used professionally. And in his personal life, Lee said, it “allows you to find and avoid the horrible places,” or to go undercover when you can’t.

This rule of thumb begins to unravel, however, when the horrible place turns out to be your home — or at least mine. To be fair, the air quality in my apartment has a lot working against it: two people and two cats, each of us with an annoying tendency to breathe, crammed into 1,000 square feet; gas stove without external vent hood; Kitchen window that opens directly above the parking lot. However, I was amazed at how difficult it was to lower the carbon dioxide levels around me. Over the course of several weeks, the best indoor reading I got, after keeping my window open for six hours, abstaining from cooking, and running my range fan non-stop, was the eighteenth century. I wondered, for a while, if my neighborhood was that terrible outside Air quality – or if my device is broken. However, within minutes of bringing the meter outside, it showed a shuddering 480.

[Read: The plan to stop every respiratory virus at once]

The harsh meter readings began to haunt me. Every rising sign gives me anxiety. I started dreading what I was learning every morning when I woke up. After watching Aranet4’s flash numbers in the 2000s as I briefly fired up my gas grill, I miserably deleted 10 wok stir-fry recipes I’d bookmarked the previous month. At least once, I told my husband to cool him down with everything that “needs oxygen,” lest I upgrade to a more climate-friendly plant-based wife. (I’m sure I was joking, but I lacked the cognitive ability to speak.) In clearer moments, I understood the deeper meaning of the screen: It was a symbol of my powerlessness. I knew I couldn’t personally clean the air at my favorite restaurant, the post office, or my local Trader Joe’s. I now realize that the problems in my house were beyond fixable. The device provided evidence of a problem, but no means of resolving it.

Upon hearing of my predicament, Sally Ng, an aerosol chemist at Georgia Tech, suggested I share my concerns with building management. Marr recommended building a Corsi-Rosenthal box, a homemade contraption made up of a fan attached to filters, to suck out schmutz from bad air. But they and other experts acknowledged that more sustainable and efficient solutions to my carbon problem have often been elusive. If you don’t own your home, or have the means to outfit it with more air quality-friendly appliances, you can only do so much. “I mean, yeah, that’s a problem,” said Jimenez, who is currently renovating his home to include a new, energy-efficient ventilator, a make-up air system, and multiple heat pumps.

Many Americans face challenges far greater than mine. I’m not among the millions who live in a city with dangerous levels of particulate matter in the air, emitted from industrial plants, gas-powered vehicles, and wildfires, for which an open window would be an added danger; I don’t have to be in a crowded office or school with poor ventilation. From the first year of the pandemic — and even earlier — experts have called for policy changes and infrastructure reforms that would cut indoor air pollution for large segments of the population at once. But as anxiety about COVID faded, “People have moved on,” Marr told me. Individuals are left alone in a largely futile battle against the foul air.

[Read: Put your face in airplane mode]

Although a carbon dioxide monitor won’t score any wins on its own, it’s still useful: “It’s good to have an objective measure, because all these things you can’t see with the naked eye,” says Abrar Karan, MD, an infectious disease physician. at Stanford University, who plans to use Aranet4 in an upcoming study on viral transmission. But he told me he never allowed himself to work too hard on the readings from his monitor at home. Even Olsiewski puts it away when she cooks on the gas stovetop in her Manhattan apartment. She already knows the levels are going to go up; She already knows what she needs to do to mitigate the damage. She told me, “I use the tools I have and don’t make myself crazy.” (Admittedly, she did Lots of tools, especially in her second home in Texas—among them is an induction stove, HVAC with ultrafilters, and a constantly running fan. When we spoke on the phone, Aranet4 read 570 ppm; Mine, 1200.)

I am now aiming for a middle ground. Earlier this week, I had a dream about trying and failing to open a window that got stuck, and I woke up in a cold sweat. I spent that day working with my (real-life) kitchen window cracked, but closed it when the apartment got too cold. Most importantly, I put the Aranet4 in a drawer, and didn’t take it out again until dark. When my husband got home, he marveled at how warm our apartment felt again.


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