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'Painting with light' project makes air pollution visible

Air pollution, a pervasive and often invisible threat, has been literally brought to light through an innovative collaboration between researchers and artists.

By combining digital light painting with low-cost air pollution sensors, a team has created striking photographic evidence of pollution levels in cities across Ethiopia, India, and the UK.

This project not only highlights the health risks posed by this environmental hazard but also sparks crucial discussions within local communities.

Visible air pollution in images

Photographs from the “Air of the Anthropocene” project have fostered dialogue about the impacts of air pollution. The project was created by photographer Robin Price and Professor Francis Pope, an environmental scientist at the University of Birmingham.

“Air pollution is the leading global environmental risk factor,” noted Professor Pope. “By painting with light to create impactful images, we provide people with an easy-to-understand way of comparing air pollution in different contexts – making something that was largely invisible visible.”

Art meets science

The team used low-cost air pollution sensors to measure particulate matter (PM) concentrations.

The real-time signals of the sensors controlled a moving LED array, programmed to flash more rapidly as PM concentrations increased. This innovative approach turned data into visual art.

“By providing a visual understanding of air pollution that is accessible to people who don’t necessarily have a scientific background, the light painting approach can demonstrate that managing air pollution levels can have a significant impact on people’s day-to-day lives,” noted Price.

Striking comparisons across continents

The project revealed stark differences in air pollution across various locations:

  • In Ethiopia, indoor PM2.5 concentrations in a kitchen using biomass stoves were up to 20 times higher than nearby outdoor levels.
  • In India, PM2.5 values in a rural playground in Palampur were at least 12.5 times lower than those in an urban playground in Delhi.
  • In Wales, PM2.5 concentrations around the Port Talbot steelworks varied between 30-40 mg/m3, compared to an hourly average of 24 mg/m3.

Engaging the public through art

“Air of the Anthropocene creates spaces and places for discussion about air pollution, using art as a proxy to communicate and create dialogues about the issues associated with air pollution,” said Professor Pope.

Study co-author Carlo Luiu from the University of Birmingham emphasized the power of images in provoking emotions, fostering awareness, and encouraging action to tackle this environmental threat.

The photos have been exhibited at gallery shows in Los Angeles, Belfast, and Birmingham.

The project has also been used to raise air pollution awareness by UN International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO), and UN-Habitat – which commissioned four pollution light paintings and texts to be displayed in Kampala, Uganda.

Global air pollution crisis

Air pollution is a major environmental and public health threat, responsible for millions of premature deaths annually.

The World Health Organization estimates that 99% of the global population breathes polluted air, causing around seven million deaths each year.

The issue is particularly severe in Asia and Africa, where rapid industrialization and urbanization have led to significant air quality deterioration.

Particulate matter is the primary pollutant responsible for health issues, including heart disease, stroke, and cancers. The innovative approach of the “Air of the Anthropocene” project shines a light on this invisible killer, urging communities and policymakers to take action.

Study implications

The study has significant implications for both public health and environmental policy. By making particulate matter visible through digital light painting, the harsh reality of air pollution becomes tangible and accessible to the general public.

This innovative approach can enhance public awareness of the health risks associated with pollution, potentially leading to increased community engagement and advocacy for cleaner air. Policymakers can use the visual data to support stricter air quality regulations and promote sustainable practices.

The project also highlights the global nature of air pollution, encouraging international cooperation to address this widespread issue.

By comparing pollution levels across diverse regions, the research underscores the urgent need for targeted interventions in areas with the highest pollution levels.

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

Image Credit: Robin Price


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