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How Much Smog Did You Breathe Today? Wearable Sensors Measure Your Pollution Intake While You Bike

Researchers are studying the health cost of being healthy on your commute.

How Much Smog Did You Breathe Today? Wearable Sensors Measure Your Pollution Intake While You Bike
[Top Photo: WIN-Initiative/Getty Images]

Biking to work is often touted as a healthy alternative to driving or taking public transportation. Indeed, it’s a great way to build exercise and stress-reduction into your daily routine. But biking isn’t all that healthy if you’re sucking down air pollution on your way to the office. It’s possible to measure the background levels of air pollution in a city or even at specific locations, but quantifying just how much pollution cyclists are exposed to on their morning rides poses a bit more of a challenge.

“I bike to my job at Columbia University since 2006, first from the East Village and now from Brooklyn,” says Darby Jack, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University. “I study air pollution exposure, and I’ve always wondered what I was experiencing as I rode.”

TonyV3112 via Shutterstock

For a long time, that had to remain in the realm of wonder for Jack. One of the major challenges studying air pollution exposure levels in cyclists is that as you ride your bike, you start breathing more rapidly than you would while walking or standing. So the amount of pollution a cyclist inhales is more than a pedestrian at the same spot. One can imagination, for instance, that as a cyclist pants to climb uphill over the Brooklyn Bridge that she’s inhaling more than someone walking over–but just how much has remained a matter of guesswork and estimation. However, recent developments in technology are making it possible to get the kind of granular data he needs to really measure how much pollution cyclists are exposed to.

“A new generation of real-time, miniaturized exposure monitors became available over the last few years,” says Jack. “These unlock the door to actually measuring personal exposures as people move about.”

Jack’s cyclist pollution measuring system is made up of five different components. GPS data is collected through Strava, an Android and iOS app that cyclists use to log their rides. MicroPEM and MicroAeth are wearable sensors that measure fine particulate matter and black carbon, the pollution in urban air that most directly contributes to disease and lowered life-expectancy in humans. Hexoskin, is a “smart shirt” with embedded sensors that can measure breaths per minute, liters per breath, and a host of other biometric data.

With all of those different sensors and the time-stamped data they produce, Jack can pinpoint when and where cyclists encounter different pollution levels. By collating the Hexoskin’s data on breath frequency and volume with the background pollution levels, he’s able to measure concretely how much pollution a cyclist inhales. Eventually, that data could be used in policy recommendations in city government.

“This kind of data can help inform the design of healthy bike infrastructure, [like] where to put bike lanes,” says Jack. “It can also inform route choice among folks who exercise outdoors in cities–when and where to run or ride to minimize exposure.”

WNYC and Columbia University have partnered to study bike-commuting air quality. If you live in NYC, don’t mind wearing a vest with some wearable tech on your bike ride, and want to participate, sign up at Columbia’s website.

About the author

Jay is a freelance journalist, formerly a staff writer for Fast Company. He writes about technology, inequality, and the Middle East.

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