They say that seeing is believing, and that’s the problem with air pollution: it’s mostly invisible. How can we reduce our exposure if we don’t know where and to what extent we’re being exposed?
We set out to learn what happens when you empower people with this information.
Through NERC’s Grant to Embed Engagement, The Centre for Health Services Studies and The School of Computing at The University of Kent built ten portable air pollution monitors and an associated phone application to lend out to members of the public. We advertised locally for interest and were oversubscribed with responses.
The first ten responses were invited to attend an interactive workshop to receive their personal pollution monitor. The workshop began by explaining to participants what pollutants the equipment monitored (PM2.5 and CO2) and what the health impacts of those pollutants were. We told participants that they could use the monitors wherever they wanted, and encouraged them to invent their own science experiments. This served as the entry point for a fantastic group discussion where each participant was given the opportunity to explain their motivation and goals, and given help to develop their ideas further.
It was interesting to hear the discussion go beyond the immediate concern of local pollution levels to the implications of our understanding: changes that might be necessary to address the causes, for example the electrification of transport and modal shift.
We were surprised by both the diversity of participants, and the diversity of their interests, whilst at the same time being surprised by the commonality of purpose in some instances.
Three participants, geographically and demographically disperse to each other, were found to share a common goal: that of understanding the effect of engine idling and increased traffic during the school run relative to other times of day. It was interesting to learn that the kinds of questions we as researchers had thought about, were mirrored by public interest, and that common sentiment seemed to settle on the most vulnerable in our society: namely children and elderly.
One of these school-run citizen scientists generated so much local attention that in their own words:
“The resulting interest stimulated the school headmistress to obtain and display banners on the school fence asking people to turn off their engines whilst their cars were stationary.”
Illustrating that even a marginal increase in awareness of environmental issues can lead to change. Simply through raising awareness about air pollution, the children of that school may now be subject to less of it at the school gates than they were before.
Another participant, who had set out to compare various commuting strategies discovered something they hadn’t anticipated:
“I discovered much higher levels and more variation within my own home than I was expecting, particularly in the kitchen where I recorded some extremely high readings. This has given me cause to reflect on cooking practices.”
We often think of air pollution as something that occurs outside and is exclusive to traffic, and in a large part it is, but this response demonstrates a blind spot that many of us share toward combustion in the home. It is important to remember that wherever combustion occurs, air pollution follows.
We had expected to attract the science-curious and the environmentally minded to our workshops, but what we hadn’t expected was that we would attract participants whose motivation wasn’t derived from either of these things, but instead was borne out of necessity.
One participant was a long term sufferer of COPD; a lung function impairment that can lead to shortness of breath, coughing, and that can sap energy. The participant wanted to borrow an air pollution monitor to understand her environment in more detail, and to understand what routes she could walk to minimise her symptoms.
This serves as a potent reminder that public engagement with science isn’t just a tick-box exercise, but is often intricately bound with the both the causes and symptoms of the defining issue. Public engagement directly motivates the underlying research and the reciprocity between researcher and citizen serves as the vehicle by which society can reflect on itself and ultimately change.
Dr Ashley Mills is a data scientist working at The Centre for Health Services Studies at the University of Kent with a current focus on air pollution. He has a background in Computer Science. His work looks at the interface between air quality policy and the known health effects of air pollution, and how the gap between the two can be reduced. He is regularly involved in community projects to appraise air quality for residents groups and has been called as an expert witness on air quality for a public inquiry.