Editorial Feature

The Rise of Urban Environmental Sensors for Public Health Applications

Urban areas are becoming increasingly subject to high levels of air and noise pollution. As a result, citizens living in urban areas are being put at greater and greater risk of health problems associated with such pollution, including respiratory conditions such as asthma, cardiovascular disease, and lung cancer.

Urban Environmental Sensors for Public Health Applications, noise pollution

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In response to this threat, government agencies and health organizations have prioritized monitoring pollution levels with new, urban environmental sensors, including pollution sensors, noise sensors, and carbon monoxide sensors, emerging as a vital tool in this process.

Why is it Important to Regularly Monitor Environmental Conditions For Public Health?

Poor air quality is considered to be a significant environmental risk to public health, even in the developed world. For example, in the UK, poor air quality poses the largest health risk of this type. Large-scale, reliable studies have demonstrated the detrimental effects of both short-term and long-term exposure to air pollution.

Studies have shown that short-term exposure can decrease lung function, exacerbation of asthma, and increases in respiratory and cardiovascular hospital admissions and death. Reduced life expectancy and increased prevalence of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and lung cancer are considered to be long-term effects.

It has also been shown that long-term exposure to noise pollution can have significant effects on mental and physical health. Side effects are reported to include poor sleep quality, reduction in cognitive performance and concentration, increased stress levels, cardiac problems, and hearing problems such as tinnitus and paracusis.

While links have been established between pollution and public health issues, the exact underlying biological basis of toxicity by which pollution damages health is still unclear. Therefore, policy-makers face the challenge of implementing initiatives to protect public health from pollution while not fully understanding the mechanistic pathways.

Fortunately, environmental sensors have emerged as a cost-effective, accurate, and reliable method of collecting vast amounts of data that can be analyzed in real-time. The information is vital to helping scientists understand the factors that contribute to pollution, as well as how this influences human health.

Using Sensors To Understand More About Pollution

Pollution sensors, noise sensors, and carbon monoxide sensors have all been developed for use in monitoring pollution. This technology is being used in research as well as in real-world applications where data is being continually tracked to help influence decision-making.

Sensors are used on their own or as part of an integrated platform; one such example is the Park & Breathe multi-sensor kit by Flowbird. The Park & Breathe system collects data on noise levels, photochemical pollution NO2 (Nitrogen Dioxide), and fine particulate matter (PM) from sensors mounted at human height to help scientists better understand how pollutants are experienced by citizens.

Collected data is analyzed and visualized on an online platform with a personalized reporting tool. Doing so aids policy-makers in understanding the data to inform key decisions that are being made to protect public health from pollution.

Noise Pollution Is Much Worse For You Than You Think

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How Widely Implemented Are Pollution Sensors?

As the importance of measuring pollution levels has become more apparent in the last few years, environmental sensors use has grown. Now, pollution sensors are generally widely implemented in countries around the world by government agencies, health organizations, and research institutions.

In February of 2020, the world's largest air quality data platform to date was launched by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) alongside UN-Habitat and IQAir. In total, the platform unites real-time data from over 4,000 contributors, including citizens, communities, governments, and the private sector. Low-cost air pollution sensors implemented in over 7,000 global cities are helping to collect a vast amount of data that will be significant in advancing our knowledge of pollution and helping to design effective initiatives to protect citizens.

Industries That Stand To Benefit From Environmental Sensor Technology

The health sector stands to benefit significantly from this technology, as it will help reduce the number of cases of illnesses and diseases associated with exposure to pollution, therefore, taking pressure off services. Additionally, the technology sector can also take advantage of the widespread use of new sensor technology that will undoubtedly drive further industry innovations.

It is possible that other sectors will benefit through potential future innovations. Wearable technology is one such field; already, wearable air pollution sensors are available on the market. This technology will likely continue to evolve and enhance via the steps being taken by the wider environmental sensor technology area.

Challenges and Future Outlook For Urban Environmental Sensors in Public Health Applications?

Overall, pollution sensors are well-positioned to further our knowledge of how pollution impacts human health and enable us to design effective initiatives to protect citizens from the harmful effects of exposure to pollution. However, a few challenges remain before sensors can meet their full potential.

For example, data collection relies on the functioning of numerous sensors. If just a few of them drop in efficacy, it can potentially impact the entire dataset. Additionally, those viewing analytical readouts must have a firm grasp of statistics to draw out the key findings of the data. These challenges are easily overcome by upskilling staff involved in urban environmental sensors projects and progressing to enhancing the reliability of sensor technology.

References and Further Reading

Public Health England. (2018) Health matters: air pollution. [Online]. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/health-matters-air-pollution/health-matters-air-pollution 

UNEP. (2020) Worlds largest platform for air quality data launched at Tenth World Urban Forum. [Online]. Available at: https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/press-release/worlds-largest-platform-air-quality-data-launched-tenth-world-urban 

University of Surrey. (2021) Testing of low-cost air pollution sensors. [Online]. Available at: https://www.surrey.ac.uk/news/testing-low-cost-air-pollution-sensors 

Kelly, F. and Fussell, J., (2015) Air pollution and public health: emerging hazards and improved understanding of risk. Environmental Geochemistry and Health, 37(4), pp.631-649. https://dx.doi.org/10.1007%2Fs10653-015-9720-1

Flowbird. (2021) Park & Breathe Pollution & Noise Sensors. [Online]. Available at: https://www.flowbird.group/smartcity/en/solutions/urban-services/pollution-sensors/ 

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author expressed in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

Sarah Moore

Written by

Sarah Moore

After studying Psychology and then Neuroscience, Sarah quickly found her enjoyment for researching and writing research papers; turning to a passion to connect ideas with people through writing.

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