My Air, My Health, My Future

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.

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