Europeans are becoming more aware of the city air around them

Guest post written by Tom Cole-Hunter, researcher at the CREAL. Photos by Raül Torán.

per post creal icfo4

In the months of September and October, the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology (CREAL, an ISGlobal centre) collaborated with the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO) as partners in the iSPEX-EU project. The essence of this project is to capitalize on large-scale, citizen contributions to science (‘citizen science’) such as observations of their environment with simple tools that compliment their existing way-of-life.

CREAL, identified by ICFO as now prominent in local citizen science activities due to leading roles in projects such as CITI-SENSE, was approached to assist in the recruitment of citizens. To participate in the project, citizens had to download an application and clip-on an ‘add-on’ to their smartphone to make an objective observation of the atmospheric air. The add-on, pictured above attached to a smartphone, works on the principle that aerosols (tiny liquid or solid particles, such as sea salt, soot and sand) interact with light in that they scatter and absorb it changing its intensity and polarization – this way the add-on, technically a spectropolarimeter, measures the amount, the size and the type of aerosols.

Volunteers using the device to measure aerosols
Volunteers using the device to measure aerosols

Although the idea is simple and the method fun, several challenges were presented for the recruitment of participants in iSPEX-EU. The first main challenge was that the associated smartphone application and add-on were only compatible with iPhone 4/4s/5/5s. The second was that clear weather and indirect sun were needed to make a measurement. Other challenges included limited time for being on the street recruiting. All of these challenges meant that we were not able to recruit as many participants as we had hoped. A lesson learned is that more inter-compatible products should be considered and developed if possible to allow the maximum participation of citizens.

Air quality and citizenship empowerment

It is imperative to involve the public in these types of campaigns as air quality has an impact on us all; it affects our health, our air transport system and the climate. Knowing the distribution of aerosol/particle sizes and types helps to inform regulation of air quality and policy decision-making. Some particles are small enough to bypass our natural filtration system in the nose and throat and reach deep into the lungs. The smallest of them may pass through the lungs through the circulatory and even nervous system and be found in organs such as the heart and even the brain causing serious health effects. Larger particles emitted with industrial processes like generating electricity with coal-fired power plants play an important, detrimental role in climate change. Additionally, natural disasters such as forest fires and volcanic eruptions can dramatically reduce visibility and may even stop air traffic due to the risk of crashing posed by engines being clogged and malfunctioning.

While natural disasters mostly cannot be prevented, acting to reduce traffic and industrial emissions can. CREAL’s involvement in the CITI-SENSE project is to help empower citizens with environmental health information so as to identify and move to improve air quality issues through awareness, education and services enabling change. One such service is the CityAir smartphone application, available for both Android and iOS, which enables citizens to make observations of the environmental quality of the places where they are based on their perceptions. These perceptions are anonymised, collected and shown on a public platform to identify areas of concern. This information can then be used to make a case for improving local, if not global, conditions.

CITI-SENSE is a four-year Collaborative Project partly funded by the EU FP7-ENV-2012 under grant agreement No 308524, started in October 2012. iSPEX-EU is part of LIGHT2015, a project funded through the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 644964.



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