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Air quality monitoring ‘needs greater media attention’

Jim Mills, managing director of technology supplier Air Monitors, explains why a bigger media spotlight on air pollution is needed and provides an overview of several personal monitoring studies over the past year

Jim Mills, managing director of technology supplier Air Monitors, explains why a bigger media spotlight on air pollution is needed and provides an overview of several personal monitoring studies over the past year.

Air quality is rarely given the media attention that it deserves, but the importance of this issue is finally beginning to gain traction. Even though air pollution is responsible for more premature deaths than obesity, alcohol and road accidents, these other problems are generally given a much higher profile. However, recent months have seen raised media and political interest in air quality and hopefully this will lead to actions that generate measurable improvements.

In comparison with the smogs of the 1950s, air quality is now an invisible menace, which is why it is not in the forefront of people’s minds. However, many of the recent initiatives to raise awareness of air quality have involved the use of portable and transportable air quality monitors to measure the air that people are breathing, rather than the air near a reference monitoring station. This has provided a fascinating insight into the ways in which people can affect their own personal exposure to air pollution.

In the past air quality data has been of limited use to the public because it is not localised; if the air quality in London is known to be poor on a specific day, only a minority of people (asthmatics, cardiovascular patients etc.) are likely to alter their daily activities. However, imagine the effects if you knew the average air quality on your various routes to work, or at your local schools or even in the areas in which you are thinking of buying a house?

Recent developments in sensor and communications technology will make that possible, and they will be on display at AQE 2015, the Air Quality and Emissions Show that will take place in Telford on 22nd and 23rd April.

Studies

Air Monitors has supplied portable air quality monitoring instruments for some of the applications that have been publicised recently. For example, Dr Ben Barratt from King’s College London appeared on the BBC’s One Show with a micro aethalometer for measuring black carbon (a product of combustion in vehicle engines) during the air pollution that occurred in April. At that time, dust from the Sahara desert was visible on cars and other surfaces and this had raised public concern.

The AQMesh Pod ambient air monitor offered by Air Monitors will be on display at the AQE Show in Telford in April 2015

The AQMesh Pod ambient air monitor offered by Air Monitors will be on display at the AQE Show in Telford in April 2015

Air quality was also the subject of a BBC programme in the ‘Costing the Earth’ series in which Dr Barratt fitted a group of MPs with micro aethalometers and measured their exposure to pollution over a working day. This revealed a pollution peak when the MPs left Westminster and shared a taxi in rush hour traffic. On a hot day, with the taxi windows open, the monitors recorded figures six times as high as those recorded walking in Parliament Square.

A similar trial was undertaken by ClientEarth’s ‘Healthy Air Campaign’ team in conjunction with King’s College London and Camden Council. A group of volunteers were fitted with portable instruments from Air Monitors and King’s College London, to measure the air pollution exposure of pedestrians, cyclists, car drivers and bus passengers in London. The results have been included in a video entitled ‘Which transport option is the healthiest?’ and this is available on www.healthyair.org.uk.

At the beginning of the video Dr Barratt explains: “Whilst most people assume that air quality in London is the same no matter where you are or what you are doing, the reality is different. We therefore wanted to take some measurements to show that the travel choices people make affect not only our contribution but also our exposure to air pollution.”

The surprising result of the Camden experiment was that the highest levels of air pollution were recorded by the person in the car, followed by the person travelling by bus. In fact, the car driver was exposed to more than twice the amount of air pollution as the person walking the same busy route, and almost eight times more pollution than the cyclist.

Air monitoring bikes

Later, in July, Vivienne Westwood and Duffy joined a crowd of cyclists on the ‘Cleaner Air Bike Ride’ that took place during the Urban Outdoor Festival in Camden to raise awareness of issues such as air quality. ClientEarth, a non-profit environmental law organisation, had fitted one of the bikes with an ‘AQMesh’ air quality monitor so that live readings could be viewed during the festival. The data included nitrogen dioxide levels (one of the most important pollutants) during the ride. Andrea Lee from ClientEarth’s Healthy Air Campaign rode the three-wheeled Cargo Bike and collected the air quality data.

“NO2 levels declined overnight, but increased sharply as the morning traffic started,” she reported. “However, it is interesting to note that pollutant levels dropped significantly as the cyclists travelled away from the traffic through Hampstead Heath.”

Duffy was particularly interested in the development of localised air quality data. “It’s over 60 years since the Great Smog of London which killed an extra 4,000 people, so it’s astonishing that a similar number of people still die prematurely every year in London as a result of air pollution,” she said, adding: “Air quality information needs to be made available in a way that can help people make informed decisions – where to live, where to send their kids to school, which route to travel to work and even where to jog or cycle.”

Fine particles and nitrogen dioxide from diesel engines are largely to blame for the pollution that blights many cities around the world and there are increasing calls to reduce the number of diesel vehicles on our roads. Last August, the Guardian featured an article entitled ‘The great diesel scandal: how cheap fuel is choking our cities’ and the Sun newspaper is currently running a campaign calling on the Government to compensate motorists seduced into buying diesel vehicles, by opening a scrappage-style scheme.

Many of these issues will be discussed at AQE 2015, in the Conference on 23rd April and in many of the 50+ free Workshops that will take place during both days of the event.

With a General Election coming, we can only hope that air quality will become a political issue, but if air quality is to become a high priority issue in the media, it is essential that people are provided with localised data on the air that they breathe – on the street where they live, the road that they take to work and the places that they walk and exercise.

Related Links:

Air Monitors
AQE Show 2015

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