Who is the villain of the piece?
The relationship between air quality and our health is a complex subject. Medical literature tells us that not only can fine particulates in the air make asthma worse, but they probably also cause it in the first place. We inhale these tiny particles, which damage our airways and then cause minor infections, making us over-sensitive to the air we breathe. But the same paper also says that there is not always strong evidence about exactly which pollutants may damage our airways.
Having said that, there is no doubt that polluted air has a negative effect on our health. In fact, according to estimates from the European Environment Agency (EEA), more than 400 000 premature deaths are caused each year in Europe by inhaling fine particulates.
This is a good reason why a great deal of attention is being focused now on motorized traffic as one of the causes of air pollution. For instance, there is the Flemish CurieuzeNeuzen project (CuriousNoses) in which people can help map air quality across the whole of Flanders at 20 000 measuring points. There are other similar programs in place, too. The Antwerp City of Things project, for example, includes equipping bpost vehicles with sensors that measure the quality of the ambient air. And, in Ghent, the data from five permanent measuring stations is published frequently in the press whenever the city’s traffic plan is in the news. On a global scale, there is the World Air Quality Index (aqicn.org), which is probably the most extensive bottom-up network of all, with over ten thousand measuring points in around a thousand major cities. And it will come as no surprise to learn that there are many apps on smartphones that can provide you with real-time information about the air quality of where you happen to be (or want to give the impression of supplying that information).
Measuring air quality is one thing; dealing with it is something else entirely
All of this means that measuring air quality is becoming easier. But what do we do with all that knowledge? In fact, the situation is very complex. Because while the air may be okay for one person to breathe, it may be unbearable for someone else – such as asthma sufferers or people with lung disease. Or looking at things the other way round: should we be alarming the whole population at the slightest sign of a particular air quality level being exceeded? Maybe we should be making a clearer distinction in terms of time and space.
Returning to the newspaper headline I mentioned at the beginning of this article, what should cyclists do when faced with this negative message? Install an app on their smartphone, look to see where the air quality is poor and, if so, ride down other streets? Maybe they could buy a prototype of Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde’s “smogbike”, which purifies polluted air? Or else – as the article itself suggests – could we link the data about air quality to other information and create car-free zones in areas where there are lots of cyclists and a high level of air pollution? I think that correlating data should be an essential next step in developing genuinely relevant recommendations and applications. Then there’s personal health information using apps that can give advice tailored for each individual.