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My Air, My Health, My Future

2013 April 2

The best innovations rely on disruption, a catalyst for change in a world of status quo.

Disruptive innovation is the theory behind the My Air, My Health Challenge, sponsored by EPA and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The challenge encouraged Americans to consider the future of air quality and human health by developing small, wearable air quality sensors that also detect how our bodies respond to the air we breathe.

Two major ideas drive the effort to combine air sensor technologies and health data. First, sensors mirror the rise of computers and smartphones – more power in less space at lower prices. Second, the air we breathe affects our health, but that data changes constantly as we move.

All four finalist teams in the challenge received $15,000, and the teams continue to transform their designs into portable sensor systems that measure air quality and corresponding physiological responses to that air quality.

Below, leaders of the four teams talk about how they’re pursuing the priorities of sensor portability, data accuracy, and low cost for the final design.

  • Aaron Hechmer and his team chose to focus their challenge efforts on the aspects of air sensor data and cost.  “This project, it really is sharing health information. To make [sensors] statistically robust, they’ve got to be in a lot of hands. To be in a lot of hands they’ve got to be cheap, particularly if you’re trying to serve communities. People don’t want to pay $5,000.”
  • Michael Heimbinder leads a team designing an air sensor that measures fine particulate matter and carbon monoxide. The team uses a chest strap sensor to look for connections between air pollutant exposure and heart rate variability, the interval between heart beats.  The team completed a first prototype air monitor and will build five more for volunteers to wear and collect data. Heimbinder says the next hurdle is visualizing the data by “displaying thousands and thousands of measurement points as dots on a map.”
  • Guy Shechter and his team view the long-term scientific prospects of the challenge. The team’s sensor will tease out links between ultrafine particulate pollution and obstructive respiratory diseases such as COPD and asthma. “The exciting thing for us is this lack of science in this area and our belief that with the technology we have, with the scientific minds we have thinking about this, that we can actually do something interesting and new.”
  • David Kuller’s team has created T-shirts sewn with sensors. Owners can wash the shirts as long as they remove the battery and the air sensor, about the size of a matchbox, prior to washing.  To measure health indicators, the shirts use an elastic strip of silver yarn that was originally designed for monitoring newborn babies. “We knew about the existence of these stretch sensors but hadn’t put them to test in any laboratory way.”

Stay tuned for an update this summer. The challenge winner will receive an award of $100,000 to be announced in June 2013 at Health Datapalooza IV.

About the author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Vicki Boguszewski permalink
    April 2, 2013

    Monroe County Florida residents do not have access to air quality monitoring data because the closest EPA monitoring station is in Miami Dade County. There are residents with respiratory issues, including Asthma, who could benefit from the knowledge and information generated by an air quality monitoring program. AIRNOW.gov returns a message “no data available” to Monroe County residents. The eco-systems and overall environment in Monroe County, Florida are considered fragile and pristine; however, anthropomorphic changes to the environment are increasing and impact population health. Specifically, the increase in vehicular traffic throughout the County has increased the presence of particulate matter in the breathing zone. This is evident along US 1 and many residents County-wide live and work within close range of the one road in, one road out, which nearly all drivers utilize. This increase is also evident in the population centers and ‘urban’ areas, such as downtown Key West, where many residents bike and are often doing so along side large tour buses, industrial delivery trucks, and seasonal influxes of non-resident drivers.

    • Sam@EPA permalink*
      April 2, 2013

      Thanks for the comment, Vicki. Hopefully the development of portable air sensors that can collect and communicate data through a cell phone will help the issue you mention in Monroe County, FL.
      I don’t work with the AirNow Program, but I clicked around a bit to see why data for your county doesn’t show up. I found that:
      “State and local air pollution agencies operate and maintain air quality monitors across the country. These agencies send the data to the AirNow program so that we can make the maps. However, not all states choose to submit data to AirNow.
      Sometimes you can get additional information for your area from a state or local agency’s own Web site, many of which can be found at the AIRNow Partners link.”
      You can read this response, and access the AirNow partners link, here – http://airnow.supportportal.com/link/portal/23002/23002/Article/25036/Why-don-t-maps-show-up-for-my-area

    • Sam@EPA permalink*
      April 2, 2013

      Also, Vicki, you may be interested in a recent Science Matters issue about EPA’s Air Research – http://epa.gov/sciencematters/june2012/index.htm
      In that issue, there are stories about air pollution near large roads and how EPA is working with States to improve air quality through technological innovation.
      And since you mentioned particulate matter, here is the link for more info about EPA’s PM research – http://www.epa.gov/airscience/air-particulatematter.htm

  2. Vicki Boguszewski permalink
    April 2, 2013

    Awesome innovations…..Monroe County, Florida has a resident population of about 72,000 people and hosts over 3 million visitors annually; a very large pool from which to draw volunteers.

  3. Electra27 permalink
    April 7, 2013

    I am concerned that we are accumulating ever increasing data that is not balanced out by solutions to the problems identified. At work I have black silt on all the windows from the street traffic one floor below–a busy thoroughfare. Asking around I found no practical solution to this problem. EPA and others were able to supply me with more information about the problem, but no information that would help me reduce the PM that I breathe every day at work. There is no physical barrier to prevent the PM. I am developing my own PM reduction system to install myself. My employer has no way to measure the air we breathe nor money to reduce our occupational risk. Out of curiosity, when I happened to meet a toll collector, I asked him how they reduce inhalation risk from car exhaust. He said there are booths, but the doors are open all the time. I already know from EPA data and the Community Air Survey done by the Health Department that the PM and ozone levels are very high. I honestly do not need any more DATA to tell me this. Even specific data on its effects on my body. That is already known. What is needed is protection. Help with protection. Ways to reduce the PM and ozone I breathe. The information of its harmful effects without ways to reduce the harm only stresses me out.

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