How Does Air Pollution Really Impact Our Personal Health?

How Does Air Pollution Really Impact Our Personal Health?

New technology allows for better measurement of the link between air contamination and health problems.

Allie Walker
  • 27 april 2012

Scientists have long studied the effects of pollution on human health, applying the level and type of pollutants in an area to the general health risks of a population. For example, residents in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood have an elevated risk of heart problems and asthma due to the close proximity of the Fisk and Crawford coal-burning power plants. While this information is helpful for people hoping to avoid living in this, and similar, highly polluted areas, what it ignores is the risk to the individual. Not everyone in Chicago’s Little Village has asthma, nor will they develop the problem. Why, if everyone in an area is exposed to the same pollutants, are some people affected and others aren’t?

The answer is not simple, but it starts with the fact that there’s much more at play than the general pollution level of the environment. Air pollution monitors can tell us how much contamination is in the air around us, but they can’t tell us how much, on an individual basis, we’re breathing in. Without knowing the real connection between air pollution and actual intake, it’s difficult and costly to appropriately link health problems to pollution.

A new technology, the personalized exposure monitoring device (MicroPEM), hopes to revolutionize how we determine health risks from pollution. The MicroPEM was created by a group of scientists at RTI International, a research and innovation consulting firm, to track actual intake of pollution in real-time. The small device is worn around the neck like a necklace, and with the help of a built-in accelerometer and motion sensors, can determine changes in pollution intake as activity levels change.

With the help of the MicroPEM, researchers can now answer questions like ‘Do we breathe in the same amount of pollution when we’re sleeping vs. jogging, or does an increase in activity directly affect pollution intake?’ After measuring the amount of pollution an individual has breathed in during various activities, researchers can then measure the individual’s physical bodily reactions alongside changes in activity levels.

Linking actual pollution intake with real-time activities and the body’s changing physical response to pollution provides a clearer connection between pollution and health problems. The increased information available to researchers will help lead to more efficient studies, and public access to better information will enable the general population to make more informed decisions:

  • How to better manage their activities – is it safe to go running in heavy smog?
  • How to determine how close to a pollution source like a coal-burning power plant is safe for living- is it ok, with proper precautions, to live within 500 feet? a mile? 2 miles? of a power plant?

Co-author of the research, Dr.Steve Chillrud, stated the importance of the MicroPEM in a recent RTI press release:

This technology is a game changer in exposure health studies. With adult ventilation rates varying by a factor of four across low to moderate activities, any study looking for associations with biomarkers or health outcomes should be better served by potential inhaled dose than with exposure concentrations.


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