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Real-time air quality monitoring can save lives

A new study led by the University of Queensland and the Carnegie Mellon University has found that sharing real-time air quality readings in developing countries could help reduce air pollution and lead to lower mortality rates.

This research was prompted by live air quality updates being posted on Twitter by US diplomatic sites around the world. “In 2008, the US Embassy in Beijing began tweeting hourly air quality information from a new pollution monitor, which dramatically increased attention to air pollution in China,” said study co-author Andrea La Nauze, an environmental economist at the University of Queensland.

“US embassies now tweet live air quality readings in 38 non-OECD countries worldwide. We looked at 36 of those countries and found the sharing of real-time data increased local public interest in air quality and led to reduced air pollution levels.”

The scientists used air pollution measurements taken from satellite data in order to evaluate pollution levels both before and after the US embassy in a city started posting on Twitter air quality readings, and compared them with measurements from non-OECD cities without such live monitoring. The analysis revealed that sharing real-time air quality information led to an average reduction in fine particulate matter concentration levels of two to four micrograms per cubic meter each year. 

“Poor air quality is a leading cause of premature death worldwide, responsible for one out of every nine deaths,” said study lead author Akshaya Jha, an assistant professor of Economics and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon. “Sharing credible air quality information can highlight this issue and have huge health and economic benefits that far outweigh the costs of the monitoring technology.”

Unfortunately, according to the researchers, the state of air quality monitoring is currently “inadequate” in many less developed countries. “Around 30 per cent of countries had at least some form of monitoring by 2018, but that includes monitoring that is intermittent, only covers a small part of the country or isn’t available publicly,” Dr. La Nauze explained.

“Even Australia – where state governments monitor air quality and provide access to real-time data – could benefit substantially from a denser monitoring network. Policymakers, diplomats and community organizations worldwide should push for the rapid deployment of credible, real-time air quality monitoring and reporting,” she concluded.

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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