Why Nesta are searching for a standard way of measuring air pollution

Everyone agrees that air pollution is one of the most important issues facing the world, but the hunt for a universal way of measuring poor air quality has so far proved elusive.

For some organisations, levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels are key to understanding the lack of clean air, while others point to PM10 emissions instead.

Across the world there are wide discrepancies. For particulate matter the lowest national standard for clean air is eight micrograms per cubic meter, while the highest is five times greater at 40 micrograms per cubic meter.

And then there is the question of how these figures can be used to understand the impact pollution is having on the health of every man, woman and child in a way we can all understand.

The international Nesta foundation recently entered the clean air debate by announcing its plans for the latest in a long line of ‘challenge’ competitions this summer to find a universal way to measure air purity, which will also show the effect of air quality on health.

Speaking to Air Quality News, the executive director of the Nesta Challenge Prize Centre, Tris Dyson, says while various ways of measuring pollution exist and are currently used, there is no ‘agreed standard way of doing it’.

‘You can measure air quality through particulate levels within the air, but how do you give it a value in terms of what does it mean for your health?’ he explains.

‘There are measurements, but a lot of them are tied to mortality, which is important between 28,000 and 36,000 people in the UK die every year as a consequence of air quality. ‘But the situation is much broader than that,’ he added. ‘There are health conditions like asthma and questions about the impact air quality has on cognitive development.’

Nesta recently held a conference on clean air in London, with speakers from a variety of organisations, including the British Lung Foundation.

Speaking at the event, the Foundation’s director of policy, Dr Alison Cook, said:‘It is no exaggeration to say that air pollution is one of the biggest threats to public health in this country.’

Mr Dyson emphasises that the air quality challenge prize, which will formally be launched this summer, is not about prescribing a solution to air pollution itself.

‘We are going to put a call out for what people believe is the best way of measuring air quality against health, so we will have a clear way of saying, for example that air quality on your street is two or three,’ he adds. ‘Level three means you have a much higher risk of getting a heart attack, whereas level two is less risky.’

Mr Dyson says by ascribing a common value to clean air, it will help decision-making make easier decisions on infrastructure, health and other areas of investment.

‘I think the other thing that will come with better measurement is huge demand and pressure on public officials at city level,’ he predicts.

‘If you know the air quality level on your street will knock a few years off your life, it will affect your house value. If people genuinely understand it, it will be the city officials who will then have to do something about it.’

He adds Nesta will be reaching out to universities, think tanks and consultancies around the world over the coming months who might be in taking part in the challenge.

‘It may be there are existing measurements out there, which just need to be tweaked and everyone agrees that is the measurement to be used.’

The Nesta challenge prize competitions have a long and fascinating history, which goes back to 1714, when the British government threw down the gauntlet to solve the greatest scientific challenge of the age – how to pinpoint a ship’s location at sea by longitude.

‘Lots of very notable people had tried to solve the issue,’ explains Mr Dyson. ‘Galileo had tried and failed, so did Sir Isaac Newton. It meant there were a lot of shipping disasters or people would set sail for the West Indies and arrive in South America.

‘So, they launched a huge prize and lots of people to try and solve the problem. As a consequence, we came up with better star navigation, but the winning solution was developed by John Harrison, who came up with the chronometer.’

He adds the clean air challenge prize will offer a ‘meaningful amount of money’ – up to £100,000 – to the winning measurement system.

‘The idea is tap into as many of the brightest minds around the world as we can,’ adds Mr Dyson.

‘The other thing we are trying to do is build up institutional support, he adds. ‘Ideally, we would have one or two institutional partners that would come on board as an adopter of a better standard for air quality monitoring.’

To find out more about the Nesta challenge prize on air quality, visit its website here.