Air quality monitoring: a role for citizen science?

Car exhaust

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), air pollution causes three million deaths each year, making it a bigger killer than the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and malaria combined. But while the number of malaria deaths globally has been halved since 2000, and HIV mortality has fallen 35% since 2005, the number of premature deaths due to air pollution is forecast to rise to more than six million by 2050.

In the UK, around 40,000 people are estimated to die each year due to respiratory and cardiovascular conditions caused by exposure to toxic substances in the air. The associated healthcare costs are in the tens of millions of pounds.

Increasing our understanding of air pollution’s impact

The ways in which air pollution statistics are reported and presented can be confusing.  As a result, many people do not always make the links between poor air quality and ill health.

Earlier this year, the Royal Society of Physicians’ (RSP) landmark report highlighting the impact of air pollution in the UK made a number of recommendations for improvement, including increased understanding of the health impacts of air pollution and better monitoring:

“We need better, more accurate and wider-ranging monitoring programmes so that we can track population-level exposure to air pollution. We also need to develop adaptable monitoring techniques to measure emerging new pollutants, and known pollutants that occur below current concentration limits. We must develop practical technology – such as wearable ‘smart’ monitors – that empower individuals to check their exposure and take action to protect their health.”

The pros and cons of compact air monitoring devices

A recent podcast from the United States National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) looked at the potential and limitations of next generation air monitoring devices. The programme underlined that the low-cost devices are a long way from the air quality monitoring stations used by government agencies that have to meet rigorous quality requirements and are operated by skilled technicians.

Many of the emerging devices have not been fully tested. For example, it’s not clear how they will react under extreme temperatures. In addition, it’s important for the operators of low-cost monitoring devices to have a statistical plan for collecting and sharing data, and to be able to interpret the numbers.

At the same time, smart technologies are still in their infancy, and there are some concerns that “the internet of things” may actually contribute to environmental pollution.

However, the NIEHS podcast observed that the compact air monitoring devices are useful for comparing levels of pollution in different locations, and they also have educational value in giving students first-hand experience of monitoring their environment.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency is working with developers of the new technologies to ensure that they meet required standards, and has also developed a toolbox for citizen scientists to provide information and guidance on new low-cost compact technologies for measuring air quality.

The Smart Citizen Kit

One example of these next generation gadgets is the Smart Citizen Kit, a compact monitoring device that measures the levels of air pollution, noise pollution and humidity in the vicinity of a home, school or office. The small box can be placed near a window and its sensors gather and submit data to a website that shares and compares data elsewhere, all in real time.

In 2014, The Waag Society – a Dutch institute for art science and technology – partnered with the Smart Citizen platform to conduct a pilot project using the Smart Citizen Kit in Amsterdam.

73 kits were installed at locations around the city, and participants were provided with helpdesk support during the trial. The project highlighted a number of operational and technical issues associated with the kits. Some of the equipment failed to work correctly, and there were problems in comparing data from different locations. While there is room for further development, the project’s success in engaging citizens to measure air pollution is a strong indicator that many people are keen to be directly involved in monitoring their own environment.

Air patrols

Closer to home, another innovative air quality monitoring device has taken flight. In March 2016, pigeons in London were fitted with lightweight sensors to monitor levels of nitrogen dioxide and ozone in the city. The air quality recorded by the sensors was sent to followers of the @PigeonAir Twitter account. The idea was the winning entry in a competition organised for the London Design Festival, and aimed to highlight the dangers of air pollution. Londoners are now being invited to wear the air quality monitoring devices to help build a real-time map of pollution across the city.

Final thoughts

In 2011, a parliamentary committee called for a public awareness campaign to drive air quality up the political agenda and inform people about the positive action they could take to reduce emissions and their exposure to these.  It’s increasingly likely that emerging smart technologies for measuring air quality may have an important role to play in raising public awareness about the insidious dangers of air pollution.


If you enjoyed this post you may be interested in our previous commentary on environmental issues:

Coming up for air: tackling the toxic pollution in our cities

The positive paybacks of clearing the airThe positive paybacks of clearing the air

World Health Organization Air quality release: UK focus

An all-round approach: could the circular economy help the world turn the corner on climate change?

Biodiversity in the UK – it’s not just about habitat protection but how we live our livesBiodiversity in the UK – it’s not just about habitat protection but how we live our lives

Coming up for air: tackling the toxic pollution in our cities

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Photograph: James Carson

By James Carson

As we’ve previously reported, air pollution is an invisible killer, estimated to cause 400,000 deaths in Europe – that’s ten times the number of people killed in traffic accidents. In towns and cities, particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) from vehicle exhausts are particularly associated with serious health risks, sometimes prompting cities such as Paris to take drastic action.

Since 2010, 16 zones across the UK have failed to meet EU standards on NO2 in the air, prompting a legal challenge by a group of environmental lawyers. At the end of April, the UK supreme court ruled in the group’s favour, and ordered the government to formulate new plans for cutting air pollution by the end of 2015.

As if to remind us of the ongoing presence of air pollution, earlier this year a warm spell of weather pushed smog alert levels in parts of England to “very high” – the most extreme warning that the government’s air pollution monitoring authorities can give.

The British Lung Foundation advised people feeling the effects of the smog in the South East, Greater London, Yorkshire and Humberside and the West Midlands to avoid busy roads during the rush hour, while people with pre-existing conditions, such as asthma, were advised to avoid strenuous activity.

In London, a long-term strategy to address the problem of air pollution from vehicles has recently been announced. The world’s first Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) will be launched in September 2020, requiring vehicles in central London to meet new emission standards, or pay a daily charge. The ULEZ is expected to halve emissions of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, and it’s hoped the move will also give a boost to the green economy by stimulating the development of ultra low emission technology and vehicles.

London already has a low emission zone (LEZ), which was introduced in 2008, and the ULEZ will bring in more stringent emissions standards. However, few other UK cities have followed London’s lead. Last December, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) called for a national framework for LEZs in the UK, similar to that in Germany, where there are more than 70 LEZs.

Noting that 29,000 deaths each year are attributed to air pollution in the UK, Joan Walley, chairwoman of the EAC, highlighted the potential benefits of the proposal:

“A national framework for low-emission zones could save councils from having to reinvent the wheel each time by providing a template with common core features, such as a national certification scheme for vehicle emissions.”

While London is taking steps towards air quality improvement, other European cities have already progressed well beyond the European Union’s limit values on emissions. Judges assessing the efforts of 23 major European cities to improve air quality placed Zurich in first place due to a policy mix which includes a strong commitment to reduce pollution from vehicles. Other cities achieving high rankings included Copenhagen, Vienna and Stockholm. London also made it into the top ten. At the other end of the scale, Lisbon and Luxembourg finished in the last two places for their “half-hearted” approach to tackling air pollution.

Glasgow, the only other UK city included in the survey, received a disappointing ranking – fifth from the bottom. The survey reported that, even though annual mean levels of NO2 fell, the city did not manage to comply with European limit values. And although Glasgow City Council planned a trial LEZ during the 2014 Commonwealth Games, the implementation was postponed, pending a new Scottish Low Emission Strategy.

The implications of the supreme court ruling are likely to be far-reaching. Diesel cars and trucks could be phased out, and more councils may have to consider congestion pricing, or differentiated parking fees. On the day of the supreme court ruling the campaigners behind the legal challenge restated their belief that all political parties should commit to policies which will deliver clean air and protect public health:

“Air pollution kills tens of thousands of people in this country every year. We brought our case because we have a right to breathe clean air and today the supreme court has upheld that right.”


 

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on environmental issues – to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading*

Anything but an open road (reducing traffic-borne air pollution)

Action on air quality: sixth report of session 2014-15 (HC 212)

NOx and the city (air pollution in the UK)

Invisible killer (air pollution)

Transport emissions roadmap: cleaner transport for a cleaner London

*Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service

The positive paybacks of clearing the air

Industrial chimneys

by James Carson

Two reports published last week highlight the potential benefits of policies for reducing carbon emissions and tackling climate change.

In the most detailed assessment to date of the interwoven effects of climate policy on the economy, air pollution, and health, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) claim that a reduction in carbon emissions could significantly cut the rates of conditions such as asthma and lung disease. The MIT researchers suggest that some carbon-cutting policies could be so effective that they would save more money than the cost of implementation.

“Carbon-reduction policies significantly improve air quality,” explained Noelle Selin, an assistant professor at MIT and co-author of the study. “In fact, policies aimed at cutting carbon emissions improve air quality by a similar amount as policies specifically targeting air pollution.”

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World Health Organization Air quality release: UK focus

smoking chimney

by Alex Addyman

The World Health Organization (WHO) has today released air quality data for 1600 world cities across 91 countries. In the press release accompanying the data release WHO explained that:

  • Only 12% of the people in cities covered live within WHO’s recommended air quality guideline levels.
  • About half of the urban population being monitored is exposed to air pollution that is at least 2.5 times higher than the levels WHO recommends – putting those people at additional risk of serious, long-term health problems.
  • In most cities where there is enough data to compare the situation today with previous years, air pollution is getting worse.

Continue reading