Imagine living in a world where the only way you know the sun has risen is because a novelty sunshine graphic has been broadcast on a gigantic LED screen in the centre of your city. It sounds like a scene from a dystopian sci-fi novel, but this was the reality for millions of people in China in 2014, when air pollution became so bad that commuters couldn’t see 10 feet in front of their faces, let alone what was going on in the sky.
But it’s not just China that’s suffering from terrible air quality; cities worldwide are polluted with airborne nasties that affect our sleep, concentration levels and respiratory performance. Back at the start of 2015 pollution in London’s Oxford Street breached the legal limit for the whole of the year after just four days. And just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Even areas of the glorious Yorkshire countryside have been found to be adversely affected by air pollution.
Air pollution results in a staggering 7 million deaths a year, according to the World Health Organisation – a number which is likely to rise as warming global temperatures increase the likelihood of days with poor air quality. The problem is widely reported, but seemingly uncontrollable. What’s to be done?
Enter a raft of new wearable technology that helps individuals understand the air they’re breathing as well as work on a macro level to influence environmental policy. Personal air quality monitors are quickly gaining traction on both tech and environmental landscapes, with early Kickstarter-funded models giving rise to a suite of next-gen monitors that are saving our lungs as well as the planet.
These wearable devices measure air quality variables in your immediate environment and put the data into the palm of your hand via smartphone. Information about carbon levels, humidity and concentrations of particulate matter can be identified in the exact spot you’re standing (or sitting, since being indoors is no guarantee of clean air), and, by gathering data made available by other wearers and existing sensors, users have access to real-time data maps of air quality in their local area, highlighting which areas of their town are most affected, right down to which streets are the most polluted. The ramification of this intel – particularly for runners, cyclists, children and asthma sufferers – is obviously significant. Armed with this information, users can seek cleaner air by choosing a different street, going out at a different time, or simply by creating ventilation in a room.
This tech has even greater use on a wider scale because it delivers piles of never before available, ground-level data to scientists who can use it to map our ever-increasing exposure to everything from UV rays to pollutants. Previously reliant on sparsely concentrated static air monitors for information on air quality, policy makers are now able to tackle pollution problems in the most affected areas.
We have access to smart tools that measure everything from our heart rate and blood pressure to how well we drive, so personal tech that helps us understand our natural environment on a level as fundamental as the quality of the air we breathe is long overdue. Here are the pioneers making clean air and healthy lungs happen.
Billed as ‘the environment at your fingertips’, TZOA (pronounced ‘zoa’) is the world’s most advanced enviro-tracker. This shiny, jewel-like sensor can be clipped to your bag or clothing to deliver real-time readings on a bunch of air quality measures, including particulate matter such as dust, asbestos, pollen, mould and smaller particulates that can cause respiratory and cardiac conditions.
This brightly-coloured device is worn on a lanyard and uses light scattering to measure particulate matter, including matter small enough to pass through the lungs and into the bloodstream. Designed to operate across an open-source platform called Air Casting, it crowdsources data from users around the world, revealing heavily polluted hotspots and cleaner alternative areas. The company is also working on a clip-on LED device that will alert the wearer to levels of pollution by glowing in different colours.
The Lapka PEM (personal environment monitor) was one of the first such devices to come to the market back in 2012. Nestled together like a small 3D puzzle, the device comprises an elegant selection of tiny sensor modules that can be attached to phones and other devices to measure background radiation and humidity, comparing levels to typical baselines for locations such as a home or street. You can even determine just how organic some foods are by using its probe attachment to read produce nitrate levels.
The MicroAeth is the world’s first ever real-time, pocket-sized black carbon aerosol monitor. Black carbon can be difficult to measure because its particle size is so small, which means it can penetrate deep into lungs, bringing with it a host of other airborne toxins. This device can operate continuously for up to 24 hours on a single battery charge, or externally powered by a wall power adaptor, and measures your exposure to the black carbon that comes from indoor stoves, tobacco smoke and traffic.
This tiny tube can be kept in a pocket or clipped onto a bag, and aims to be the Waze for air quality tracking where you live. The device links to a smartphone app that gives real time data on volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and carbon monoxide and as well as cleaning agents and allergens that might affect your lungs. The app makes air quality easy to understand by giving you a number from 0 to 100 (with 0 indicating you’re probably dead from toxic air and 100 meaning you’re enjoying the freshest air possible). You can even set it to send an alert to your phone once the air quality in your area drops below a certain level.
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