Feb. 26, 2015
I have written before about air quality as an issue for community-centered deliberation and action, and as a place where technology fluency can change the world. Air quality is never far from recent news tropes; but the past month we have witnessed an explosion in coverage, and for good reason. Studies have found new correlations between bad air, ADHD and autism. Add that to well-known epidemiological links to cardiovascular disease and, of course, asthma.
The amount of air quality suffering globally is truly staggering; and now comes the newest report: more than half of all residents of India live in such polluted air that more than three years is shaved off their lifespan. That’s 2.1 billion life-years lost, and that is just India, never mind China, Indonesia and countless other countries. My own beloved Pittsburgh suffers through 230 days of bad air every year, and even San Francisco, blessed by ocean winds, witnessed terrible air quality for nearly two weeks just last month. No doubt: air pollution is causing a global health crisis.
Awareness is always the first step. Just as U.S. air monitors atop embassies in China changed the conversation about air quality countrywide, so we need Americans to see invisible air particulates. Use Federal air quality data to see your neighborhood’s pollution profile, for example using your zip code at specksensor.org. For calibration, zero to 10 micrograms is great; 20 is moderate, and the Chicago study showed that 100 means a three-year cut to lifespan. Air pollution is also a major contributor to environmental injustice; a black carbon map of Pittsburgh, released this month, shows that the homes near Pittsburgh’s highways and in our valleys suffer from far greater levels of pollution — the pollution picture correlates frighteningly with a chart of Pittsburgh neighborhoods by income distribution.
We also need to measure indoor air pollution particulates so we learn whether we can control for our children’s asthma triggers. Technology will not save us from air pollution; but technology designed right will empower us to understand our pollution exposure and learn how to triage effectively.
Air pollution is a rapidly heightening concern, and it will not go away with a magic, technological salve. But we must aim our technical inventiveness at creating sensors and visualizations that will empower communities to come to grips with the scale and urgency of the problem, block by block. Particulates kill more in the U.S. than AIDS, breast cancer and prostate cancer put together. Literally 50 percent of us are at risk because of air pollution, although 100 percent of us have the human right to breathe easy.
Illah Nourbakhsh is the author of Robot Futures, Director of the CREATE Lab and Head of the Robotics Master’s Program at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute