Now you can see pollution rising up from cities and spreading around the globe on wind currents in nearly real time. The airborne microfragments known as small particle pollution are important because they shorten the lives of millions of people each year.
The captivating 3D visualization was created by a father living in Beijing who at first just wanted to know exactly what pollution levels his children were breathing. Computer scientist Yann Boquillod ended up building an interactive tool for everyone.
The data flows in from three places: government air measurements, satellites, and air monitors created by Boquillod’s company AirVisual. The company is deploying its monitors, or sensors in part via social media.
The AirVisual sensors use a high precision laser and measure the particles known as PM 2.5. They also talk to each other and use artificial intelligence and machine learning to identify outlier data and prevent it from going online.
“You need to have a way to validate the data you are collecting before you publish it, because that is a very big responsibility. People are going to take action in response to the data,” Boquillod said.
The sensors are calibrated in AirVisual’s factory. He said the $200 sensors are accurate to within 10 percent of what is measured by far more expensive government monitors.
Forty AirVisual measurement devices now beam back particle pollution data from the Philippines. Others report pollution levels in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Italy and Cambodia. AirVisual is preparing to place hundreds of outdoor sensors in Kuwait.
“Our goal is to cover the world with data points,” Boquillod said.
It’s hard to know where to start in listing the ways small particles wreak havoc inside the human body. Their composition varies widely, from dirt to acids to carbon and ammonia. They can irritate the lungs of both healthy people and those with respiratory problems, so on days with heavier pollution, more people end up seeking medical care. Research in Southern California shows particle pollution can hurt children’s lung development and keep them from achieving full lung capacity. Particles also are linked to more strokes. When women are exposed to high particle counts while pregnant they are more likely to have low birth weight babies.
Small particles basically come from burning. That includes cars, diesel fuel in trucks, trains, ships and heavy equipment, wildfires, agricultural field burning, refineries, power plants and boilers for industrial process heat. Some comes from dust storms. People can also easily be exposed to harmful levels of particles at home, from the fireplace, a bad vacuum cleaner or cigarette smoke. The smaller the particle, the more it can bury itself deep inside the lungs, sometimes carrying along tiny molecules of carcinogens like benzene.
“If it is very small, it can evade certain defense mechanisms in your body and get to places where it might not be able to be fought off, and cause some reactions,” said Ed Avol, a respiratory health expert and professor of clinical medicine at the University of Southern California.
Professor Jenny Quintana is an environmental health scientist at San Diego State University involved in a pollution measurement project along the U.S.-Mexico border, with its intense traffic. She said increasing public understanding of the massive toll taken by air pollution is important.
“I think any tool that raises awareness of outdoor and indoor air pollution and the dramatic effects on human health is a really beneficial tool,” she said. “It is 11.6 percent of all global deaths.“
The San Diego region is considered close to the limit for acceptable small particle pollution. The number and severity of bad days varies considerably depending on wildfire.
Born of frustration
Two years ago, when he started on the project, Boquillod and his wife were the parents of five children under 6. (They have two sets of twins.) They live in notoriously polluted Beijing, where particle pollution levels are commonly six times higher than what would be considered an acute episode in the United States. (Rotate the map to China and take a look.)
But he wasn’t satisfied with the accuracy of available monitors. So AirVisual began making its own, and funded them in part with a successful Indiegogo campaign in 2016. Meanwhile Boquillod was exploring available government and satellite data, and building the visualization.
Once he had the air pollution part of the interactive in place, he added the flowing wind markers, “to remind us that the Earth is alive,” he said.
Boquillod said his hope for the map is that people “will realize this dramatic problem. We hope people will make a change in their behavior and understand whenever you consume, you create pollution in one part of the world.”