Air pollution: effects and solutions

Research & Insights

How air pollution affects us, and how to reduce it

As our cities grow, town planners look for ways to improve air quality and limit respiratory problems caused by pollution.

Health Agenda magazine
October 2018

Living in the city brings many benefits, from job opportunities to access to education and healthcare. But one of the down sides can be poorer air quality caused by pollution.

Air particles carrying pollution can come from sources like cars, wood burning and coal power plants. According to the Australia State of the Environment 2016 report these particles may contribute to decreased lung function, increased respiratory (breathing) problems and heart and lung disease.

Air pollution may also worsen conditions like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimates that in Australia alone air pollution contributes to around 3,000 deaths a year.

Australia is growing fast. Today we have a population of 24.9 million. By 2061 it’s projected to be 36.8m-48.3 million, reports the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

This increase is putting a strain on our cities’ environment, resources and air quality. So it’s more important than ever that builders and town planners use ‘smart’ technologies to focus on health and reduce air pollution.

Tracking air pollution in the city

In August 2018 City of Sydney Deputy Lord Mayor Jess Miller led the Breathable City Hackathon, which challenged locals to workshop ideas about clean air. Two products were road-tested: wearable air-quality trackers and a pollution forecasting app, both from Plume Labs in France.

Sydney has no air-pollution monitors in the CBD, Miller says. “The locations [currently monitored] are where air quality would be good, such as Lane Cove National Park.”

She says the use of sensors could improve the lives of the vulnerable, the young and seniors by providing warnings when air pollution levels are likely to be dangerous. They can avoid particularly polluted areas or being outside at peak times, or take medication if needed. There’s also a strong economic case for this approach if it can reduce hospital costs related to respiratory illnesses. “It’s preventive health from a city-planning perspective,” Miller says. 

Building ‘green’ houses for health 

The United Nations forecasts that global population will jump from 7.6 billion today to 10 billion by 2056. By this time two-thirds of the world’s people will live in cities, so many town planners are looking for solutions to urban sprawl and air pollution challenges.

As co-founders of the Singapore-based design firm Woha, architect Richard Hassell and his business partner Wong Mun Summ are tackling both concerns. Woha’s starting point is to “create even more nature than [existed] before the city was there”, says Hassell.

Plants combat air pollution by filtering out particles, absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen. The ‘sky gardens’ created by Woha in Singapore also limit the urban ‘heat island’ effect that makes city centres hotter than surrounding areas. And they dramatically cut or even eliminate air-conditioning costs, Hassell says.

Woha’s 2013 project, Parkroyal on Pickering in Singapore, had twice as much green space as site area, with 15,000 square metres of elevated terraced sky gardens. Woha topped that 3 years later with Oasia hotel, Singapore, with a green-to-site ratio of 10:1.

These dense, self-sustaining vertical communities will generate their own power, water and even fresh food while recycling waste and limiting pollution.

“The technology is all there and not very difficult,” says Hassell. “[The challenge is] how you get everyone on board and have a large enough project where you can see the effect.”

Pollution alerts on the go

On a more personal scale, technology could help individuals to manage respiratory health conditions or avoid health risks associated with air pollution, says MOQdigital technologist Nick Browne.

The Brisbane consultancy is exploring how to use Arrow ECS sensors that capture carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, oxygen, air pressure, temperature and humidity readings. The data is displayed on a real-time map as ‘traffic lights’ so people with respiratory conditions know which areas to avoid or when to stay inside. This is also relevant to aged-care, nursing and childcare providers whose clients can be vulnerable to poor air quality.

Despite our relatively good air quality in Australia, pollution can still affect some people with allergies and asthma. One approach is to use air purifiers in your car and home. The National Asthma Council Australia says that quality of filters varies; their site includes product recommendations.

You can check pollution levels near you with the online real-time Air Quality Map.

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