My boyfriend wasn’t feeling well. Then again, that wasn’t too surprising.
We had just spent a weekend at New Orleans’ annual jazz festival, where we spent long days baking in 90 degree weather and drinking plenty of beer to stay cool. But hangovers and heatstroke weren’t the only potential culprits.
The risk of COVID was everywhere. I knew that because for weeks I had been carrying around a palm-sized, $150 carbon dioxide monitor that assesses exactly that.
Then Jesse told me that he couldn’t smell anything. A bright pink line soon confirmed the answer I’d been dreading. He had COVID. Three days later — after two years of avoiding it — I tested positive, too.
Carbon dioxide monitors can assess how COVID-risky a space is because they help tell you whether you’re breathing in clean air. They measure the concentration of carbon dioxide, which people exhale when they breathe, along with other things like, potentially, virus particles. The more well-ventilated a space, the lower the reading on my monitor's screen — meaning not only less carbon dioxide but also less of the stuff like COVID that might make people sick.
I had been testing out the device because I was curious how helpful technology like this might be in the midst of a global pandemic as we all make decisions about which aspects of pre-pandemic life to resume and where to still practice caution. I also wanted to see what it might reveal about the safety of the places I spend my time. More often than not, I found that the number on the screen of my monitor was high — too high.
I’m not the only one who’s had this idea.
“Because masks are not required anymore, I find myself using a carbon dioxide sensor more,” said Linsey Marr, an aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech who has had a monitor for about a year and a half. “I feel like I now have a much better sense of, ‘Oh this place could be risky, and this less risky.’”
In a perfect world, carbon dioxide levels would be readily available in every space — allowing us insight into the invisible infrastructure that determines the safety of our environment as we go about the awkward business of finding a new normal. Instead, we’re stuck navigating this new phase of the pandemic without any real idea of how risky our offices, favorite restaurants or local cinemas really are.
The CO2 monitor came with me not just to New Orleans (where the carbon dioxide readings ranged from 636 parts per million to 4325 ppm) but also to a family Passover seder in Illinois (under 1,000 ppm), wine tastings in Oregon’s Willamette Valley (441 ppm to 722 ppm) and, after the transportation mask mandate ended in mid-April, on plane rides filled with newly maskless travelers (around 585 ppm to 1,928 ppm).