The Toronto Library's Carbon Dioxide Lending Program Has Been a Huge Success

The Toronto Library’s Carbon Dioxide Lending Program Has Been a Huge Success

You can borrow a lot of neat stuff from the Toronto Public Library.

Books, obviously. Not just books, though. You can also borrow museum passes, videos, Arduino kits (measures the intensity of light), musical instruments and even CO2 monitors starting this year.

This summer, Prescientx, a Canadian engineering and manufacturing company, donated 50 Aranet4 CO2 monitors to the library. So far, they’ve been a hit with customers who are embracing the technology and measuring air quality everywhere they go.

“The response has been really enthusiastic,” said Abbe. Velasco, Director of Innovation, Learning and Service Planning at the Library. “It’s very well distributed, and if you use social media, not a day goes by without people talking about it.”

And mostly, what they talk about are the readings they see in public.

“People can get group readings for different public spaces, so you kind of have this project of mapping different public spaces and indoor air quality,” Velasco explained. “It was really exciting to see that kind of revitalization in the community.”

In response, there is a new application of clean air, black Crow, who had more than 3,000 followers when she last checked. The day we looked, a lot of people were posting about air quality at York University. Unsurprisingly, the lecture halls and library, crowded and full of people, were the worst reads.

In case you’re not familiar with these screens, the reason they’re trending has everything to do with COVID-19. Long before the Toronto Public Library started lending it, people were using it as a risk assessment tool. The idea is that they can measure the amount of air you exhale from other people you receive, and thus, the level of danger you face in a particular location.

I’ve seen many posts on social media from people taking readings in public. When the numbers start going up, they interpret it as an alarm warning them to get out.

How well can a carbon dioxide monitor predict your risk? We asked Jeffrey Siegel, professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto.

“I think it’s great that libraries provide screens and I’m glad that people are interested in ventilation,” said Siegel, who has been stressing the importance of ventilation as a public health measure for most of his career. “But trying to quantify infection risks with a carbon dioxide monitor is actually much more complicated.

“I totally agree that the total number can be somewhat useful to say that there is a high or low level of ventilation in a place,” Siegel said. “But there are a lot of other factors, such as the airflow pattern in the room and your proximity to an infected person.”

Different people also breathe different levels of carbon dioxide and the amount of carbon we exhale depends on our level of activity.

“I think we should be very careful. Like there is no way I feel at all comfortable telling you that there is this magical threshold under which you are safe and above which you are not.”

Siegel, who stresses that he loves carbon dioxide monitors and uses them all the time in his research, says the most effective way to use them is to measure levels in the same place over time — rather than taking a single reading on your tour across campus. If carbon dioxide levels suddenly jump somewhere, for example, that could alert people that there is a malfunction in the system.

“I really like that the library provides it,” he added. “As a general way of understanding your internal environment, I think it’s actually kind of cool and can help people start learning things that I think are very useful for learning. I like people who explore their internal environments.”

“But I get a little nervous when we start making critical decisions about things like infection risks.”

So, if you’re planning to borrow one, it might make more sense to use it as an educational tool than a COVID alert device. Education is, after all, a big part of the Toronto Public Library’s mission statement.

“At the library, we always give people access to information, so this is a unique way to continue that tradition,” Velasco said, adding that the library’s digital innovation centers provide Torontonians with computers, wireless network access, computer training and even recording equipment.

“This is just another way we are helping to bridge the digital divide,” he said.

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