Citizen Science is blooming. There’s a growing number of examples of research projects in which the general population can participate. In this post at the blog Health ISGlobal, the researcher Irene Eleta (CREAL) talks about some of these projects which are related to air pollution and that scientists at CREAL /ISGlobal are leading, such as CITI-SENSE.
Guest post written by Tom Cole-Hunter, researcher at the CREAL. Photos by Raül Torán.
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.
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.
How is our health affected by pollution, green spaces, urban design and active transport? This is what Mark Nieuwenhuijsen is studying at the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology (CREAL), located at the Barcelona Biomedical Research Park (PRBB). In this short video the Dutch researcher explains his studies on how outdoor contaminants affect health.
Coordinated by Martine Vrijheid from CREAL, HELIX has received €8.6M from the European Commission’s 7th Framework Programme. It aims to build an early life “Exposome”, a collection of all early-life environmental exposures affecting children, and it has 4 years and a half, from January 2013 to July 2017, to do so. HELIX will develop tools to measure the exposome, including the use of smartphones and biological markers.
The project involves 13 partners from eight European countries, including two SME’s and six birth cohort studies from France, Greece, Norway, Spain and the United Kingdom.
Exposure assessment in epidemiological studies is a tricky issue, because of the difficulty of constantly tracking people’s activity and location, both of which can affect the exposure to pollution. Researchers at CREAL have shown how using smartphone technology can help to reduce this bias in health effects estimates.
Audrey de Nazelle, a postdoc at Mark Nieuwenhuijsen’s lab who has currently started her own group at the Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College in London, used the CalFit smartphone technology to track person-level time, geographic location, and physical activity patterns for improved air pollution exposure assessment. CalFit is a ubiquitous sensing technology developed at UC Berkeley. It consists on using a GPS and an accelerometer in a smartphone to record the location and physical activity of the carrier through energy expenditure and activity tracking algorithms. de Nazelle and her colleagues at CREAL distributed CalFit-equipped smartphones to 36 subjects in Barcelona to obtain information on physical activity and geographic location. This information was then linked to space-time air pollution mapping.
The authors of the paper, published in Environmental Pollution, found that information from CalFit could substantially alter exposure estimates. For instance, travel activities – which wouldn’t have been measurable without the use of the mobiles – accounted on average for 6% of people’s time and 24% of their daily inhaled NO(2).
The potential of this technology for epidemiological studies is enormous. As the authors state, the large number of mobile phone users makes this technology a potential unobtrusive means of enhancing epidemiologic exposure data at low cost. In fact, they are now using it in several epidemiological projects they are involved in, such as the ERC-funded BREATHE study, the EC-funded PHENOTYPE, and the HELIX and EXPOsOMICs studies.
You can read a related interview to de Nazelle here.
de Nazelle A, Seto E, Donaire-Gonzalez D, Mendez M, Matamala J, Nieuwenhuijsen MJ, Jerrett M. Improvingestimates of airpollutionexposurethroughubiquitoussensingtechnologies.EnvironPollut. 2013 Feb 13;176C:92-99
An interview published in Ellipse, the monthly magazine of the PRBB.
Philippe Grandjean, Adjunct Professor of Environmental Health at Harvard University, delivered a lecture in Barcelona invited by Jordi Sunyer, from the CREAL, a ‘model institution’ according to Grandjean. Sunyer introduced the talk about what the Danish-born scientist calls a ‘silent pandemic’: the effect of chemical pollutants on neurodevelopment.
To what extent do in utero conditions affect adult health?
There are several studies that show that exposing pregnant women to mercury can affect the development of their children, even if they are not affected themselves. Minamata disease, a neurological syndrome caused in children whose mothers suffer severe mercury exposure, was discovered in Japan in the 1950s, and was a shock to the world. Since then many other studies have demonstrated the effect of mercury exposure on foetal development. However, it wasn’t until 2009 that an international agreement was reached to control mercury emissions into the environment!
How many pollutants can be neurotoxic during early development?
There are about 100,000 chemicals in the world. About 200 have been documented as being neurotoxic to adult humans, and only five to foetuses: lead, mercury, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), arsenic and toluene. However, the foetal brain is much more sensitive than the adult one! So I think we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg. For example, many pesticides can be neurotoxic to humans, as the nervous system of the insects that the pesticides attack is very similar to ours. For example, we did a study in Ecuador on pregnant women working in flower plantations, who were exposed to pesticides. Their children at school age presented a delay of up to two years in their brain development.
Are these effects irreversible?
The brain has great plasticity, so one might think that with enough effort we could get kids with lower cognitive abilities to catch up with the rest. But the problem is for this plasticity to occur your neurones must be in the right place. You cannot develop your full potential if you don’t have the correct anatomical foundation and if your nerve cells and connections are abnormal.
And does mercury exposure cause anatomical problems in the brain?
Normally we have no way of checking, but with Minamata disease, quite a few of the children died, and when they were examined at autopsy it was seen that their brain cells appeared in a disrupted pattern, as if their migration during brain development had been affected. So yes, we think so.
If they are so dangerous, why are these pollutants not banned?
The problem is that chemicals are not banned unless it’s proven that they are dangerous. But then it’s too late! I think we need to move towards the opposite strategy: a chemical should be banned unless it is proven not to be dangerous to brain development. Prevention should come before science. After all, we have only once chance to develop a brain.