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Smog life: Airborne anxieties

15 : 02 : 2016 Future Cities : Urban Air Quality : Pollution

The internet was distressed when the news broke in December 2015 that Beijing was so engulfed in pollution that local newly-weds could hardly take a selfie together. This infringement on the right to self-represent was caused by a more serious problem: the toxic haze that hung over the city for three days, triggered by one of the city’s first red alert air quality warnings. An Air Quality Index (AQI) reading of 151–200 triggers a red alert – at the time of writing New York’s AQI is 40.

More than 2,000 factories in the Chinese capital were ordered to stop or scale back production. Half of the city’s cars were pulled off the roads, and students from schools and nurseries were told to stay indoors in order to avoid harmful microscopic particles. This desolate vision is no longer in the future, but happening in 2016 as air quality degrades in urban areas.

The battle against air pollution is a long-running one, but now many emerging economies are being hit particularly hard as richer nations outsource dirty factory production. As economic growth continues to be deemed more important than planetary and human wellbeing, cheap factories and petrol-guzzling cars continue to proliferate, nowhere more so than in China, where the yellow haze is fuelling growth in a post-pollution products market.

Urban dwellers in China are well aware that particulate matter, or PM, of 2.5, made up of dust, dirt, soot, smoke and liquid droplets, has a detrimental impact on health and causes a range of unwanted symptoms from light headaches to cancer. Products such as protective face masks and in-home air purifiers have become functional necessities among middle-class consumers. As this market develops, progressive design and technology will experiment with air-improvement techniques, and an innovative new category of products will emerge.

Historically, here at LS:N Global we have covered the more luxurious and future-facing designs that are beginning to emerge to address sub-standard air quality. Awair is a great example. This smart connected device monitors the home’s air quality, detects humidity, reads CO2 levels, takes your home’s temperature, and measures fine dust particles and volatile organic compounds in the atmosphere, before sending that information to an app that aggregates it to give an overall score and suggest measures to improve conditions.

In a similar vein, Design Academy Eindhoven graduate Fabian Zeijler created a series of elegant air quality monitors that double as objets d’art. When they detect a drop in air quality these objects subtly draw attention to the fact by rotating, prompting the owner to open a window or evaporate water to solve low humidity, for example.

Alongside such corrective design innovations, we expect the sale of clean air to take a similar direction to the bottled water market, proliferating gradually in the long term. Vitality Air, a Canadian start-up, is already bottling fresh air from the Rocky Mountains. The company’s sales soared following rising pollution levels in China. Three litres of Lake Louise Air, which equals about 80 breaths, will cost about £13.85 ($20, €17.90), excluding delivery.

This shows how thirsty the Chinese middle classes are for products and services that can solve their health problems. They can afford luxury clothes, cars and design wares, but without innovative air quality products, pollution is an unwelcome leveller for them. You can only stay indoors for so long, and you can only order so many bottles of fresh Rocky Mountain air. The post-pollution products market is crying out for more sustainable innovations.

A little closer to home, the issue of air pollution is now pressing here in London as well, thanks to traffic. I may have the luxury of walking or cycling to work, but any health and fitness benefits are being offset by the polluted air I am breathing on the streets – as a study from King’s College London recently revealed.

The research found that in 2016 London took just one week to breach its annual air pollution limits. Hammering the point home, it asserted that nearly 9,500 people die prematurely in London each year due to air pollution. Nitrogen dioxide, emitted by motor vehicles, is a particular cause of respiratory and heart problems.

It is not just on the streets that people are endangered by air pollution. Londoners who travel on the Tube network each day are also at risk. Platform-level pollution is 73 times worse than at street level, according to research by the Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment at University College London. A one-hour trip on the Northern Line is roughly equivalent to smoking three cigarettes.

Some local activists, worried by the effect of dirty air on everyone from cyclists to children, have started to take action. In 2015, Lambeth Council took a stand by calling on the Mayor of London to replace old buses with new, cleaner, greener electric machines that would emit minimum amounts of pollution onto the streets of Brixton.

In response, the Mayor promised to switch bus engines this year, but he also started a Breathe Better Together campaign that dubiously suggested during a high-pollution alert that people should spend less time outdoors – a defeatist strategy that only illustrates how bad pollution is in the British capital. In the short run, air purifiers may help those of us who are better off – and stay indoors much of the time. But in the long run we will need far more decisive governance, and responsibility on the part of those who create products and services that could make us choke up.