Breathing Easier: Measuring the Real Impact of Air Pollution

Breathing Easier Air Pollution Photo

More than 4 million people are killed each year as a result of exposure to outdoor air pollution, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In fact, air pollution poses one of the biggest environmental risks to our health, causing respiratory illnesses, heart disease and lung cancer.

To empower funders, researchers, policymakers, campaigners and citizens to change these statistics and help deliver clean air for all, the Clean Air Fund was established in 2019 at the United Nations (U.N.) Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit.

To date, the philanthropic organization has raised US$50 million to help fund a slew of projects around the world focused on climate change, health, mobility and children. Many of the efforts center on collecting comprehensive data that help illustrate the dangers of air pollution in certain places and enables healthcare workers to lead the fight against it, including:

  • Supporting and funding projects in India that rely on sensors and data to monitor air quality in certain areas.
  • Analyzing the levels of chemicals in the air in Bengaluru, the results of which found heavy toxins in 20 of 27 locations.
  • Conducting research in communities located near coal-fired power plants in the industrial city of Korba, India, which found that people living there were twice as likely to suffer from respiratory diseases.

“One of the main challenges is getting enough local data into the hands of community groups and local policymakers to motivate action and help people figure out what they want to do about it,” said Jane Burston, executive director and founder of the Clean Air Fund.

Connecting the Dots with Data

“Telling the local story of air pollution’s impact is essential to driving change because the closer that data gets to your house or your children’s school, the more likely you are to want to do something about it,” Burston says.

“We know from work our partners have done, hearing those big numbers isn't the thing that helps people decide to change their behavior or request something of their politician on any given day,” she adds. “The thing that gets them to walk or cycle their kid to school rather than drive on a busy day is knowing that it's safer and cleaner for them and the other kids in the neighborhood.”

If everybody made those changes, Burston says that a considerable number of lives could be saved.

But in addition to driving more local data, Burston and the Clean Air Fund are working to ensure the data is more accurate.

For example, one of the organization's largest efforts is happening in China, where poor outdoor air quality results in over 1 million deaths across the country each year, according to WHO. Last year, a pilot project was launched between the Environmental Defense Fund and the Beijing Huanding Big Data Institute and municipal government in Cangzhou City.

A big data platform was built to map air quality across the city in real-time to see if construction sites and commercial areas were adhering to regulations. By fitting mobile low-cost sensors on taxis, air quality could be measured at a greater range. Previously, enforcement officers conducted on-the-spot checks. Hotspots were detected 10 times more using the sensors. 

A Measurement Blueprint

Not every country is equipped with the sensors or programs needed to gather quality data about air pollution and its effects on communities. For example, a report from OpenAQ, which pulls together real-time air quality data from sensors around the world, found that while Europe has a lot of sensors, Africa has very few.

“One of the headlines from that report was that only 10 out of 52 African countries have any monitoring on air quality at all,” says Burston. “It's very uneven and in those 10 it's very sparse. In India, the capacity for monitoring is growing, same in Eastern Europe, but Eastern Europe has a lot less data.”

According to Burston, the best way for countries to start or improve their ability to monitor air pollution levels is to learn from the experiences of more advanced regions.

A blueprint, which other cities learn from, has been developed in the United Kingdom. The project, called Breathe London, demonstrated how low-cost sensors could be used to map and measure air quality to better understand pollution.

Burston is hoping to apply these lessons—as well as those from the Clean Air Fund’s projects in India and China—in Africa. The organization has begun exploring places where they can work in the region before urbanization takes hold and air pollution becomes a problem.

"We want to start to work with countries and cities to see if we can head off pollution at the pass and avoid it before it happens," Burston says. "It would be quite a different way of working, potentially with urban planners and city developers looking at how they can plan cities, so they are more walkable or cyclable. What kind of infrastructure can help avoid pollution in the first place?"

Currently, the same technologies to combat air pollution are needed to mitigate the impact of climate change.

"There has been a groundswell of opinion toward implementing clean technologies and policies that encourage those," Burston says. "As climate change increases, there is a growing coalition wanting to improve air pollution."  


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