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What’s in the Air You’re Breathing?

By Larry Greenemeier
6/9/2012 12:07:04 PM

The amount of chemical and/or particulate pollutants in the air on a global scale is a touchy subject with little cross-border agreement over the best way to alleviate the problem. This week alone, the U.S. condemned a European Union law requiring all airlines flying to and from EU airports to buy permits under an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). Meanwhile, on a more regional level, environmental advocates sued New Jersey on Wednesday for Governor Chris Christie's decision to pull out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a 10-state compact created to cut air pollution from power plants.

Image courtesy of Challenge.gov

Perhaps the best way to control environmental contamination, then, is to educate populations about the impact of pollution on a personal level and spur citizens into action. And what better way to do this than to create a portable gadget that shows people the connection between air quality and their own health? That's the goal of a new competition sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Department of Health and Human Service (HHS).

The "My Air, My Health" challenge invites researchers and tinkerers alike to develop plans for wearable gadgets that collect data about the purity (or lack thereof) of the air in and around a specific community and then gauge the impact of that air on that community's health. The definition of such a community is pretty broad, whether it's joggers in New York City's Central Park, street vendors in Chicago or motorists commuting in and around Los Angeles. The sensor system must meet the specific needs of that particular community, which means competitors are expected to get feedback from their target population as they work on their projects.

The competition, which began June 6 (ironically, the same day that outrage over airline emissions controls came to a head and the lawsuit against N.J. was filed), is broken down into two phases. The first requires competitors to file a project plan by October 5 that proposes-and provides supporting evidence of-a link between airborne pollutants and health problems; describes a prototype wearable or carried sensor device that can gather, manage and wirelessly transmit air-quality data; and plans for a proof-of-concept study to test such a device. The device itself must be able to track the date, time and location of data collected. Up to four finalists will be chosen on November 8 and awarded $15,000 each.

During the competition's second phase, finalists get to roll up their sleeves. After EPA and HHS advisors provide feedback on the finalists' projects, the competitors are expected to build one or more prototype devices and test them in their target community. The device must be able to both home in on air pollutants and measure one or more physiological metrics of the person wearing or carrying it, such as that person's heart rate, breathing or pulse oxygenation. Based on his or her device's ability to accurately gather and report the required data, the phase-two winner walks away with $100,000.

The challenge could ultimately lead to mass-produced monitors that we can use to track the impact of air pollution on our health, but the more immediate goal is to create awareness of the problem and perhaps a sense of urgency to have that problem addressed on a larger scale. All of the competition's details can be found on the My Air, My Health Web site.

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