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What’s in the Air You’re Breathing? Competition Aims to Spur the Development of Personal Air-Pollution Detectors

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The amount of chemical and/or particulate pollutants in the air on a global scale is a touchy subject with little cross-border agreement over the best way to alleviate the problem. This week alone, the U.S. condemned a European Union law requiring all airlines flying to and from EU airports to buy permits under an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). Meanwhile, on a more regional level, environmental advocates sued New Jersey on Wednesday for Governor Chris Christie’s decision to pull out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a 10-state compact created to cut air pollution from power plants.

Perhaps the best way to control environmental contamination, then, is to educate populations about the impact of pollution on a personal level and spur citizens into action. And what better way to do this than to create a portable gadget that shows people the connection between air quality and their own health? That’s the goal of a new competition sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Department of Health and Human Service (HHS).

The “My Air, My Health” challenge invites researchers and tinkerers alike to develop plans for wearable gadgets that collect data about the purity (or lack thereof) of the air in and around a specific community and then gauge the impact of that air on that community’s health. The definition of such a community is pretty broad, whether it’s joggers in New York City’s Central Park, street vendors in Chicago or motorists commuting in and around Los Angeles. The sensor system must meet the specific needs of that particular community, which means competitors are expected to get feedback from their target population as they work on their projects.

The competition, which began June 6 (ironically, the same day that outrage over airline emissions controls came to a head and the lawsuit against N.J. was filed), is broken down into two phases. The first requires competitors to file a project plan by October 5 that proposes—and provides supporting evidence of—a link between airborne pollutants and health problems; describes a prototype wearable or carried sensor device that can gather, manage and wirelessly transmit air-quality data; and plans for a proof-of-concept study to test such a device. The device itself must be able to track the date, time and location of data collected. Up to four finalists will be chosen on November 8 and awarded $15,000 each.

During the competition’s second phase, finalists get to roll up their sleeves. After EPA and HHS advisors provide feedback on the finalists’ projects, the competitors are expected to build one or more prototype devices and test them in their target community. The device must be able to both home in on air pollutants and measure one or more physiological metrics of the person wearing or carrying it, such as that person’s heart rate, breathing or pulse oxygenation. Based on his or her device’s ability to accurately gather and report the required data, the phase-two winner walks away with $100,000.

The challenge could ultimately lead to mass-produced monitors that we can use to track the impact of air pollution on our health, but the more immediate goal is to create awareness of the problem and perhaps a sense of urgency to have that problem addressed on a larger scale. All of the competition’s details can be found on the My Air, My Health Web site.

Image courtesy of Challenge.gov

Larry Greenemeier About the Author: Larry Greenemeier is the associate editor of technology for Scientific American, covering a variety of tech-related topics, including biotech, computers, military tech, nanotech and robots. Follow on Twitter @lggreenemeier.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. TomGillilan 11:27 am 06/9/2012

    WE ARE ABOUT TO ENTER A NEW ERA Low cost air sensors are about to enter the consumer market this year for the first time ever. We will no longer be dependent upon professional liars to tell us just what is in the air that we do breathe. We will be able to measure it ourselves. We will also be able to network with an active community of fellow concerned citizens. The air many of us breathe is far far worse than authorities are willing to measure or admit and as government employees they couldn’t care less.

    IF YOU TRAVEL TO LOS ANGELES BRING YOUR OWN AIR AND A GAS MASK

    SMOKE POLLUTION EVERYWHERE

    Link to this
  2. 2. Ralf123 7:17 pm 06/9/2012

    Bah, clean air? Who needs it, we need cheap power from coal more, and damn the mercury, radioactivity and acid rain!

    Link to this
  3. 3. priddseren 3:18 am 06/10/2012

    Ralf123, Damn the mercury? Are you warmists the ones who are pushing CFL lights everywhere and spreading mercury all over?

    How about we just push this one to the back burner for awhile. The first problem is the warmists who have declared CO2 to be a pollutant will just use this as yet another excuse to exterminate the evil humans.

    But that is not the worst of what will happen. A device like this will just mandated by the government into a database and they will force all humans to start paying carbon taxes, buying carbon pollution licenses and take anyone’s kid away because the inside of the house has .00000000000006678% too much extra CO2 and bad parents just should not be putting kids in so much danger. Ok, ok maybe I exaggerate the last part about the kid, who knows.
    The rest of it though, it is a certainty. The minute the government thinks they can measure your personal pollution, they will tax the hell out of all of us for it. The fun part is since all of these so called pollutants, or even the real pollutants are all measured with statistics, their effects also statistics with even more statistics generated by rigged computer models will ensure the government can always claim a need to tax and regulate us into serfdom but of course also allow them to give their friends and elites a pass because somehow they can statistically measure their friends personally pollution as perfectly acceptable.

    The politicians around the world are already pillaging and controlling people enough, lets not had them something else they could use, something that really will have no significant benefit.

    Do you really think people will change from this device?

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  4. 4. JamesDavis 8:45 am 06/10/2012

    I think this is great. The EPA should have come out with this a long time ago and that means that the repugs (conservatives) are going to work even harder to shut down the EPA. But it shouldn’t be for everyone, choose four random people in a community, and the EPA can pay them $500.00 (everyone, except the ultra dirty rich can use an extra $500.00 a month) to wear the device for a month, then choose four more random people until you do this for a year and then compare their data with the data of people who is wearing the device for their own personal interest. That away you can see who may be tampering with the device or the data gathered. This way it would be too difficult for the governments, coal, oil, nuclear, autos, and natural gas companies to tamper their data or buy tampered with data to make their polluting companies look better.

    “priddseren”, I wondered how you deniers would come up with a reason to call this device worthless and a waste of taxpayers money. The people who buy the device for their own personal interest would not be using tax payers money, and the EPA who pays four random people (the controlled group) in each community a month to wear the device would be money well spent to gather more accurate data and compare it to the non controlled group. Let’s see companies lie about their data then when there are four or five hundred people around them also gathering the same data.

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  5. 5. Fanandala 3:07 pm 06/10/2012

    This device will be grist on the mills of the hypochondriacs, and spawn a myriad of (mostly frivolous) lawsuits. Woe on to those who suffer flatulence.

    Link to this
  6. 6. dadster 5:25 pm 06/12/2012

    Clean air or not we want manufacturing industries that create jobs and produce goods at competitive prices to start / return to the USA. That’s the need of the hour. First we must survive and for survival jobs are more important than unpolluted air. in the name of air pollution and other industrial waste pollution all our manufacturing industries were shunted out of the country although it was more because of the fact that the 1% couldn’t make enough greedy profits due to american wage increases . When workers in other countries can produce at one fourth of the american labour cost of production, even though the workers ( the 99%) gain ,the corporation share holders (the 1 %)were losers .Hence on the pretext of caring for the health of the workers the jobs were removed to places where labor was cheaper . The
    99 % is now realizing what was the real game being played upon them. So bring back manufacturing into America and, please, we the 99 % percent will look after our health although the shareholders of insurance corporations might cry ; but that’s OK, for a change, as they were predators so far.

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