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How wearable technology could change the way we think about air pollution

Artist Kasia Molga’s “Human Sensor” project changes color and pattern in response to the wearer’s breathing and the surrounding air quality. (Nick Harrison)

A new report from the International Energy Agency is driving home, yet again, the immense importance of cutting down on pollution and protecting air quality worldwide.

The report, which focuses on the links between energy and pollution, points out that more than 6 million premature deaths each year — or about 18,000 deaths each day — are caused by air pollution around the world. And a majority of these pollutants are caused by energy use and production, including the burning of fossil fuels and biomass.

While activists lobby for more stringent pollution-cutting measures around the world, and policymakers grapple with how to write them, some scientists and designers have turned to the power of innovative technology to raise awareness and save lives with the help of wearable pollution sensors. These sensors, while mostly not yet proven or available on a mass scale, may be coming sooner than you think.

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It’s an idea that U.K.-based artist and designer Kasia Molga has applied in her newest project, called the “Human Sensor,” set to premiere next month in Manchester, England. Molga has designed a high-tech clothing that changes color to reflect the amount of pollution in the surrounding air. The project is being produced by commissioning organization Invisible Dust, which works with artists and scientists to produce projects exploring the themes of climate change and pollution.  

Molga developed the idea for the project several years ago after suffering a severe asthma attack for the first time in several decades. “I started thinking about the fact that because of the rising temperatures and also rising populations, especially in urban environments, things are happening, which we can’t see, but they will of course affect our bodies very drastically,” she said. “And so I kind of looked at myself as the sensor for these environmental changes — as in my body is probably the best kind of diagnostic tool for the health of the environment.”

The project will involve a series of performances in which models will walk through various locations in Manchester wearing Molga’s specially designed clothing. The outfits are designed to change colors and patterns as the models breathe in and out, and also change in response to the levels of black carbon — a major component of particulate air pollution, often produced by fossil fuel burning and other industrial activities — wherever they happen to be walking.

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Organizers will collect pollution data from each location using portable sensors and then program the data into the electronics before the performers go on their walks. “Although it won’t be exactly real time, it’ll be pretty close,” said Andrew Grieve, a senior air quality analyst at King’s College London who has been working on the project.

Engineers have been designing and marketing small, wearable or otherwise portable pollution sensors for several years now. TZOA, for instance, is a wearable “enviro-tracker” that reportedly measures the particulate matter in the surrounding air and allows users to access the data through a smartphone app. Clarity, another sensor, focuses on fine particulate matter, specifically, and uses collective data from users to map pollution levels around the world.  

The sensors are intended to inform the user about how pollution levels change as they travel. In fact, air pollution can differ drastically even from one neighborhood to the next, said Michael Jerrett, chair of the department of environmental health sciences at the University of California at Los Angeles.

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“Depending on the type of pollution, you can see a lot of variability or change in the levels of pollution over very short distances,” he said. For example, a cyclist pedaling down a busy road might be exposed to five or even 10 times higher levels of ultrafine particles or carbon monoxide, thanks to traffic, than would a person in a neighborhood just a few streets over.  

So there are practical choices that such sensors can help us make, such as where to go jogging or which parks to take children to play in.

Wearable sensors could in theory be useful on a larger scientific level, as well, although the technology may require some improvements before it reaches that point.

“I think that most people who work in environmental or spatial epidemiology would agree that the very best assessment you could get of someone’s exposure would be to have them carry a sensor on their person,” Jerrett said. “And to then know where they were and what they were doing, their activity level.”

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Most studies of air pollution and premature mortality have tended to rely on models that take little information into account when it comes to the different neighborhoods people go into on a day-to-day basis or their activity levels at the time.  

Researches may be able to recruit large numbers of people to wear these types of sensors and take part in population-level studies, said Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, a research professor at the Center for Research in Environmental Epidemiology in Spain. He has been involved with projects exploring the utility of personal sensors as part of the CITI-SENSE consortium, a collaboration involving several dozen European institutions aiming to develop community-based environmental monitoring projects.  

Nieuwenhuijsen said some personal sensors measure pollution concentrations “reasonably well,” and may be useful for the individual, but whether they’d be suitable for larger-scale research projects is still unclear.

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“Most of them have not reached a level of precision that we would consider valid for research purposes,” Jerrett noted. For instance, certain factors, such as changes in humidity, are suspected to affect the way some sensors report pollution levels, he said.

“I would say that the current state of the science is there are some sensors that are good enough to detect changes in microenvironments,” he said. “But they do not line up as well as we’d like with a reference instrument that would cost $10,000 and require a lot of labor.”  

As the technology plays catch-up, however, Nieuwenhuijsen pointed out that there are other issues to be wary of.

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“What you have to be careful of is to put too much responsibility on the individual,” he said. Wearable pollution sensors might allow people to make more informed choices about their daily activities, but policymakers still need to look at pollution from a bigger lens and put measures in place to protect whole cities or regions. In other words, action should be “more on a community basis than an individual basis,” he said.  

From Molga’s perspective, using the technology in art is also an important way to raise awareness about the critically important connection between humans and the air we breathe.

“It’s not just a display of the air quality,” she said, “but it’s about also displaying something so invisible and ephemeral and very important for us to be alive as human breathing.”