Artist creates solid block of Beijing smog

As Beijing experiences its first “Red Alert” smog emergency, an aptly-timed bit of quirky performance art is making the round on Chinese social media and the English-language press today. A artist from Shenzhen who calls himself “Brother Nut” spent 100 days walking around Beijing with an industrial vacuum cleaner. He then collected dust into a brick, and plans to let the brick disappear into the supply of ordinary bricks shipping out to construction projects around the city.

In the last few days, particulate levels in Beijing have reached 256 micrograms per cubic meter, more than ten times what is considered acceptable. Brother Nut says he collected about 100 grams over the 100 days, or about a gram a day. So, his vacuum cleaner had to have processed at least 4000 cubic meters per day. Not bad, considering EPA reference instruments process between 1468 and 2446 cubic meters in a day.

Several Wibo users complained that the vacuum used wouldn’t capture PM2.5, and that the brick wasn’t 100% pollution, to which Brother Nut responded that he’s not a scientist and isn’t doing research. So, building scientists — can you help a brother out by posting some photos of the gunk you’ve collected in your samplers?

Importance of Greenspace

A blog post from the Scottish Wildlife Trust by Ed Taylor discusses the importance of greenspace in Scotland’s suburban and urban areas. It’s part of a “50 for the Future” series that suggests 50 things that should occur in Scotland over the next 50 years to benefit both people and wildlife. As suburban areas are massively built all over affluent countries to accommodate growing families and populations, wildlife areas are shrinking. From experience, my family moved to a newly built suburb near LA several years ago and the area around us is being rapidly built just over the little time we’ve been there. Sadly, this is at the expense of decreased biodiversity and urban greenspace.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust blog post goes into how greenspaces originated, what the benefits are, and what future goals should be. For instance, that “research has found that the difference between highly walkable and non-walkable communities is an average of about seven pounds of body weight.” Ed Taylor believes that the ideal urban area should incorporate parks and green areas into compactly built structures to encourage walkability for pedestrians. On microBEnet, we have often discussed research on possible benefits of indoor plants. It seems to go hand-in-hand with a discussion of increasing wildlife immediately outside of buildings. Although there is still more research that can be done on the subject, there are undoubtedly positive effects to increasing the amount of nature that surrounds us, whether psychological or biological.


A "close-knit, compact and permeable" space - via Ed Taylor's post on the Scottish Wildlife Trust blog post.
A “close-knit, compact and permeable” space – via Ed Taylor’s post on the Scottish Wildlife Trust blog post.

A cloud of cloud things for detecting clouds

For the past couple of years, there has been a storm gathering on the horizon of indoor air quality monitoring. Nucleating around crowd-funding sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo, these devices seem to advect along roughly similar trajectories. The teams working on these projects have created a sort of high pressure system wafting high-quality industrial design onto the radar in this otherwise quiet market sector. The projects also drop a steady shower of Boostrap-inspired stylesheets and mobile apps.


There is, as yet, scant information about the sorts of sensors employed in most of these devices, what their range of sensitivity is, what their accuracy and precision, how they are calibrated, or virtually any useful technical detail. Nevertheless, they are out there. Consumers are clearly interested in this kind of data, and the early adopter crowd is putting hundreds of thousands of dollars down to get it. I thought I would do a little roundup of the twelve products I was able to find. Not all of these products are actually shipping yet, but I’ve done my best not to include any obvious… let’s call it vaporware. 

In case anyone might want to study these things in more detail, I’ve compiled a table.



Atmotube is a small, portable battery operated device, somewhat ironically housed in a case resembling a cigarette lighter.


Air Mentor

Air Mentor is a CO2, CO, VOC, PM2.5, PM10, Temperature, and Relative Humidity detector shaped like the rotor in a Wankel engine. It was developed by Taipei-based CoAsia Microelectronics.



Air.Air is a football-shaped device developed by Shenzhen-based XINJI Computer Parts. The hole in the middle is, evidently, for an optical particle counter from Sharp Electronics.



Foobot is the first product from a small startup based in Luxembourg, also called Foobot. Follow Foobot on Twitter :



Sensly is the only product I found in this category that targets SOx, NOx and ammonia, though I’m not sure if this is accomplished with targeted sensors or if they have a sensor with sensitivity to many such compounds. If the latter, then probably some of these other devices will also respond to SOx, NOx and ammonia.



Canary is mostly a sort of one-box home security system. You plug it in and connect it to your WiFi network, and it does the usual security stuff. It’ll do motion detection, let you monitor your stuff with a remote camera. They also included air quality monitoring features, on which additional details were… nebulous.With some digging, I was able to find that the thing evidently measures isobutane, ethanol and hydrogen, maybe VOCs, maybe particulates. It also seems to be able to measure carbon monoxide, but the company seems keen to avoid having people use it as a carbon monoxide alarm, which it is not certified to do.



Confusingly, this product used to be called Canary. This is basically a carbon monoxide alarm with some extra features — particulates, VOCs, temperature and humidity.


Withings Home

The Withings Home is essentially a web-based baby monitor with some sort of “air quality” feature. I found no clear specifications of what it actually measures.



The Awair device is a recently crowdfunded monitoring device targeting particulates, VOCs, CO2, temperature and humidity. Follow the project on the Medium account.



The TZOA-consumer is a wearable particle sensor, with some extra stuff, including a UV, ambient light, temperature and humidity. They also have a TZOA-research version with the same sensors, but with a bigger battery, more storage and the ability to attach additional sensors.



CubeSensors won the TechCrunch Hardware Battlefield in 2014 with their cute little VOC, CO2, temperature, humidity, ambient light and pressure sensors packages. They come in packs to monitor multiple rooms! Gizmag did a detailed review back in July.

Antibiotic resistance genes in “black gold”

Sometimes efforts to be environmentally friendly can give rise to microbial challenges. This was nicely described by Katie Dahlhausen in her recent post about water quality about green buildings. Other examples include observations that Legionella pneumophila can be contracted from shower heads and the use of low flow shower heads and lower water temperatures may increase its transmission. Likewise, wastewater (e.g., Environmental and Public Health Implications of Water Reuse and Reclaimed water as a reservoir of antibiotic resistance genes) and animal waste are important sources for the spread of antibiotic resistance genes into the environment.

Animal manure has long been used to fertilize fields and may also increase antibiotic resistance genes and alter the structure of soil bacterial communities (see original study here: Bloom of resident antibiotic-resistant bacteria in soil following manure fertilization). A surprising and important result from this study is that the use of antibiotics in livestock was not required for antibiotic resistance to emerge. A recent blog post from Food Safety News describes how composting manure prior to application in the field may help reduce the spread of antibiotic resistance genes from manure: Black Gold and Antibiotic Resistance.


A cow in Northern Italy, home to wonderful food and cheeses, and where you can also regularly discern the scent of manure in the air after its application to agricultural fields. Photo by Holly H. Ganz.

None of this means that we should abandon efforts towards improving sustainability, start wasting lots of water and electricity, make heavy use of antimicrobials or take showers with boiling hot water. Instead we need to design and conduct more of these careful studies to help us address these challenges.

Air Quality on Airplanes

Happy 4th of July! Given how many people in the US are travelling this long weekend, this article about air quality on airplanes caught my eye. And, while you are reading this post, may I suggest the following song: B.o.B – Airplanes ft. Hayley Williams of Paramore ?

In this short article called Air Quality on Airplanes 4th of July Air Travel Update, Charlie Seyffer from Camfil, a manufacturer of air filters talks about the recycling and treatment of air on airplanes.

The recirculated air is passed through industrial grade HEPA air filters that are capable of removing particles that are hundreds of times smaller than the eye can see. Airliner manufacturer’s say that between 94 and 99.9 percent of airborne microbes are captured, and that there is a total changeover of all of the cabin air every two or three minutes.

Maybe it’s the remaining 6 percent of microbes that are still being blown into my face, but I often catch a cold within hours of air travel. Or is it just the fact that in an airplane with 300 passengers there is always a person near your seat who has a cold and will sneeze on you. Charlie Seyffer offers the following advice:

To reduce your probability of breathing in these contaminants turn the air vent above your seat on and aim the clean air current slightly in front of your face so that germs from infectious passengers that are nearby will be redirected away from you.

So there you have it. The article also links to a Camfill video about this topic. Happy travels and don’t catch a cold.

The case of the warehouse mystery pooper

Suppose you owned a warehouse that serves as a distribution hub for grocery stores, and you find that every so often, someone is pooping in your warehouse. Not only is that insulting and obnoxious, but it also has the potential to make a lot of people very sick. You take the shift schedule, and you correlate it with the times the mystery pooper has struck. You find that there are two employees who had the opportunity to do the dastardly deed.

You might reason something like this : Poop has human DNA in it. Why not tell the employees they have to submit buccal swabs for testing if they want to keep their jobs? After all, if they weren’t the ones pooping all over the place, the test will exonerate them. Seems reasonable, yes?

Turns out, no. This sort of practice is prohibited under the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). The warehouse operator argued, unsuccessfully, that the law only applies to genetic tests that could reveal health information. The US District Court found otherwise, and the grad jury awarded damages of $250,000 and $225,000 to each of the employees. Moreover, the grand jury was asked,

Do you find from a preponderance of the evidence that Atlas Logistic Group Retail Services (Atlanta), LLC acted with malice or with reckless indifference to the Plaintiffs’ federally protected rights such that punitive damages should be assessed against them?

They concluded that yes, the employer had acted with malice or reckless indifference to federally protected rights, and levied $1.75 million in punitive damages. This is probably worth pondering before you go around playing CSI without a badge and a warrant.

But of course, what you are really wondering is if the DNA tests unmasked the mystery pooper. Turns out, no. If either of the two employees were responsible, they were enterprising enough not to use their own poop.

“Making a microbe subway map” for Eureka! Lab by Bethany Brookshire

There is an article about the NY Subway Microbiome study by Bethany Brookshire that is worth checking out: Making a microbe subway map | Student Science.

It discusses how high school students helped in the subway microbiome study that came out recently (see the post by Chris Mason about this here: The long road from Data to Wisdom, and from DNA to Pathogen).

Some of the quotes are fun – I like in particular: “An old man said we were the strangest thing he’d ever seen on the subway. And he’d lived in New York City for 50 years,” notes Anya Dunaif, 17.

Definitely worth checking out.

Important read from Aaron Darling: Not so fast, FastTree

Aaron Darling, faculty member of University of Technology Sydney (who used to work with me here at UC Davis) has a very important and interesting read on his blog: Not so fast, FastTree. In it he discusses some informatics archaeology he did (digging around in some code) regading the program FastTree which many researchers have been using for the last few years.  If you use FastTree or do any large scale phylogenetics, especially of microbes, this is worth a look.


Quick post: interesting read from December on “The Urban Microbiome”

Quick post here.  I discovered this a few weeks ago but just have not had time to write about it in detail or even scrutinize it exceptionally carefully but it seems of interest to the theme here at microBEnet:  Invisible City Life: The Urban Microbiome | The Nature of Cities.  By Marina Alberti from the University of Washington “College of Built Environments”.  Sorry I cannot write more about it right now but wanted to share it with others.  If you have thoughts on it please post comments …