Portable devices allow tracking of real-time exposure to airborne contaminants

A volunteer gets ready to bike around the city with her AIR sensor.  Credit: Brooke Singer

It doesn’t require a computer to figure out that the air behind an exhaust-puffing truck isn’t clean.

A group of techno-centric artists are aiming to calculate exactly how unclean automobile fumes are, by determining what exactly is in that dark cloud of smoke and how it compares to the surrounding, un-blighted air.

On Sept. 14, researchers from Preemptive Media handed out a few binocular-sized pollution sensors to volunteers in New York City. Part environmental art and part social-networking experiment, the project—known as Area’s Immediate Reading, or AIR—equips participants with devices that track carbon monoxide (CO) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) levels as they traverse the city.

Both NOx and CO are good indicators of street-level pollution. Byproducts of combustion, they are considered indirect greenhouse gases, meaning that they influence the levels of other greenhouse gases. NOx, which refers generally to a group of gases containing nitrogen and oxygen, is one of the main contributors to ozone and acid rain. CO also contributes to ozone formation, and allows methane, a main greenhouse gas, to persist in the atmosphere.

In New York, as in other cities, the Environmental Protection Agency monitors the air quality at fixed monitoring sites. But the entire city is monitored by just 14 devices, offering little information about micro-changes in air quality that people might experience as they walk by a bus depot in Chinatown or through Times Square.

“Pollution isn’t exactly a hidden topic,” said Beatriz da Costa, one of the founders of the AIR project. “But on your daily, personal path to work—that’s very different.”

The AIR sensor calculates the CO and NOx levels in the air roughly once every second. Meanwhile, the GPS unit within the device pinpoints the location of the reading, and the information is then sent to AIR’s server.

A screen on each device indicates fluctuations in pollution levels—deeper shades of red signal areas with high pollution and hues of blue intensify as the air gets cleaner. The machine can also reveal where other AIR participants are and how clean the air is in their neighborhoods.

The map also gives the location and emission statistics of some major pollution culprits, such as a power plant or sugar factory. The same information is also displayed on AIR’s Web site and on screens in its Manhattan headquarters.

By visualizing pollution, “we are making that kind of invisible background more visible,” said Brooke Singer, a co-founder of Preemptive Media and an assistant professor of New Media at SUNY-Purchase.

Singer’s colleague Da Costa is simultaneously working on another project called PigeonBlog, in which the sensors similar to those used in the AIR study are strapped to racing pigeons. To date, these pigeons have flown over San Jose and Irvine, California, as a Web site tracking their real-time encounters with pollutants.

Though AIR and PigeonBlog aim to open a public dialogue on pollution, personal pollutant tracking is also becoming an invaluable tool for scientific research.

Rufus Edwards, who researches environmental health at University of California, Irvine, uses particle monitors to measure the air quality of homes in developing countries. More than 50 percent of the global population has indoor stoves without proper ventilation, which is a major cause of illness, said Edwards, who also advised da Costa on PigeonBlog.

Edwards and his colleague Kirk Smith altered commercial smoke detectors to act as particle monitors in the experiment, essentially creating for about $150 what previously cost as much as $6,000. The small, lightweight sensors record information continuously, providing a wealth of data.

“This has revolutionized our ability to take measurements in the developing world,” Edwards said.

Edwards is currently testing the sensors with wildland firefighters: The sensors signal to firefighters when they need to don respiratory protection.

The potential for use of mobile sensor technology is tremendous for public health studies, such as those that assess pollution’s effect on incidence of asthma, Edwards said. The greatest obstacle is funding, not finding the proper tools.

“One’s not limited by technology,” he said.

Originally published September 27, 2006

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