• 05.12.15

“Smart” Inhalers Are Now Monitoring All The Asthmatics Of Louisville

A new kind of air-monitoring network, courtesy of the people who can’t breathe because the smog is choking them.

“Smart” Inhalers Are Now Monitoring All The Asthmatics Of Louisville
[Illustrations: Vladystock via Shutterstock]

How do you find out where air pollution is affecting people the most? Ask the asthmatics.


Across Louisville, Kentucky, residents are documenting how often and where they use their asthma inhalers. It’s part of AIR Louisville, a program that uses Propeller Health’s sensor-laden inhalers to let residents automatically track where and when they’re having a hard time breathing.

Combine that data with a network of air sensors–from the EPA and a network of micro-air samplers from around the Louisville area–and all of a sudden it might become a lot more clear what the connection is between air quality, environmental factors, and asthma severity.

The program, a partnership between Propeller Health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and others, leverages the same Propeller Health technology that the company uses in other commercial programs: sensors that attach to inhaled medication, and an accompanying smartphone app and physician-facing website that can make data from the sensors more actionable. In this case, patients are given the inhalers for free.

AIR Louisville is still recruiting patients and will run for at least a year, monitoring the use of both “rescue medication” (short-acting bronchodilators) and daily maintenance doses of medication–the reason being that more usage of rescue meds indicates poorly controlled asthma.

The air sensors add another layer of data. “The idea is to intersperse air sampling monitors–to overlay those onto the EPA monitor backbone so we get a little more local resolution of what’s happening,” says David Van Sickle, CEO and co-founder of Propeller Health.

This will be the second asthma study in the city. AIR Louisville will have up to 2,000 participants, but a smaller study of several hundred people conducted in 2014 validated the usefulness of the data. “One thing that surprised me was the degree to which even with a small sample we were able to see interesting relationships to ambient exposures, like air pollution, wind direction, and speed,” says Van Sickle.

Over the next five years, Propeller Health plans to expand its asthma monitoring to five cities across the U.S., creating a map of asthma hotspots for residents. Using open data and predictive modeling–combined with inhaler use information–Propeller will also map out the parts of cities where climate change will have the biggest impact on people with respiratory diseases.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.