Meet the Londoners fighting for clean air

Pigeon Air Patrol. Pic: Plume Labs/DigitasLBi

You don’t need to be a scientist to measure air pollution. In fact, there’s a plethora of organisations, charities and businesses willing to help you join the fast-increasing ranks of citizen air pollution monitors.

One sleek sensor, the Air Quality Egg, was designed to detect pollution inside and outside the home. PlumeLabs even kitted out pigeons with tiny pollution-sensitive waistcoats to measure London’s pollution in perhaps the most bizarre air pollution awareness raising stunt.

But why do citizens need to measure air pollution at all? Government data on air pollution is helpful, but as council air pollution monitors are spread fairly far apart, much of the data is modelled. Modelling is a sophisticated science, but it still means that monitors can’t pick up on smaller pollution hotspots in your local area.

Citizen monitoring picks up on these gaps in official data, potentially letting residents know which areas to avoid, and arming people with scientific proof to advocate for cleaner air.

The accuracy of some of the monitors has been questioned. Monitors can be bought online for just over a hundred pounds, a fraction of the cost of government equipment – but it’s often unclear how thoroughly these machines have been researched and tested; whether their true function is scientific recording, or simply awareness raising.

Three keen citizens tell us why they monitor air, what they are finding – and how citizen action may even be the key to nationwide change.

Hannah Gardiner

“Two years ago, the public hardly knew anything about air pollution. Now my phone never stops ringing”

Hannah Gardiner. Pic: Eve Watling

Hannah works as a project assistant at London Sustainability Exchange (LSx), a charity helping London to become more environmentally sustainable. She facilitates the Cleaner Air 4 Schools and Cleaner Air 4 Communities projects, which aim to raise awareness and understanding of air pollution.

“I grew up in the countryside. When I moved to London five years ago I used to live near the North Circular, so when I walked to work in the morning the air stank and made me feel sick. Air pollution is a big issue in London and once you know about it it’s hard to not want to do something.

“We give people diffusion tubes to monitor the air. They’re not as accurate as a static monitoring station, but they do allow you to find places where you think there might be a problem and ask the borough to take further action, and also use that information to engage people. Encouraging community groups to monitor their local area’s levels of pollution means empowering people to take control of knowledge and do something with it.

“Schools are a good place to encourage citizen air pollution monitoring, as young lungs are much more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution. Encouraging the school community to think about how to reduce pollution around the school, in terms of less parents driving, can also have an impact for pollutant levels in the playground.

“Why is citizen monitoring popular now? I think it’s just a raising of awareness. Two years ago, we were ringing people and trying to persuade them to work with us on air quality and only getting the groups you’d expect – green groups. Now my phone never stops ringing, and it’s everyone – from professionals, mums and babies groups, and residents associations – the whole spectrum. Everyone’s interested.”

Anab Jain

“My son had asthma since he was one”

Anab Jain

Anab is the co-founder and director of design company Superflux. Their BuggyAir monitor attaches to prams and is designed to help parents measure the air pollution their kids are exposed to.

“My son has had asthma since he was a year old, and it’s a combination of air pollution and pollen that causes it. It’s not the direct reason that we made BuggyAir, but I think subconsciously I had this feeling that it was an urgent matter.

“We started thinking about how sensors can give people the capacity to understand data, and do something about it. We were originally looking at measuring with bikes, but then we found that in cities ground-level air pollution is the worst. It affects infants and children because they’re at that height and it can mean that their lungs don’t fully develop. The long-term effect of air pollution on children is hugely damaging.

“The mobility of BuggyAir is really important as currently air pollution is measured with big monitors in the city, often not at the same height as people walk. That doesn’t reflect personal exposure, which varies a lot.

“People are seeing more and more headlines about air pollution; it’s really a matter of urgency now. Awareness is very important because we want data to be shared by local people with their local councils. We need to think about it – it’s a health issue.”

Sarah Hudson

“If we look out of our window, we can see a haze of pollution. You think: ‘What is it doing to me’”

Sarah Hudson. Pic: Eve Watling

Sarah lives in the Barbican Estate in the City of London. In 2013, she helped organise the Science in the City air-monitoring project.

“My husband and I moved back to London in 2003 after living in the countryside for a while, and it was obvious to us that the air quality here is pretty awful. Every winter we get something a bit like bronchitis. There’s 4,000 residents here in the Barbican Estate – half the City’s resident population. If we look out of our window, we can see a haze of pollution. You think: “What is it doing to me?”

“Fifty Barbican Estate residents were given nitrogen dioxide diffusion tubes on their balconies at different heights to see how pollution varied compared to the street level. Another cohort went out with a particulate monitor and walked around the street, recording their journeys over a week.

“We got a fantastic amount of data. Mapping for Change mapped our results and we found that pollution levels don’t drop off with height. Which way your building’s facing, and whether your building faces the road, is more important. Some people found that NOx levels were above the safe limit.

“Like all data that’s collected by amateurs it’s not perfect – one month someone put tier diffusion tube upside down so we were missing a month. But the data did highlight that the government’s modelled maps were not correct because they show a much steeper drop off of pollution as you get away from the road. Our work proved this wasn’t the case and they are now going to remodel using our data.

“There was a general feeling of shock when we saw the results – people thought that the Clean Air Act of the ‘50s had cleaned up the air.

“People are really concerned about air pollution. But you feel completely powerless. If you live in the city you likely don’t have a car or any gas boilers, and we walk most places. The only thing you can do is monitor and then hit people with the data. Ask questions at public meetings, write letters and try to raise awareness.”


What can I do?

      •   Join Friends of the Earth’s air pollution campaign.
      •   Walk, cycle or take public transport  – instead of driving.
      •    Write to your MP about the issue.

Follow our Clear The Air series this week to find out more about the air pollution crisis in our boroughs.

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