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NYU review study suggests potential for gauging health risks of air pollution on individual level

A new review by an interdisciplinary research team from New York University (NYU) of studies on levels of urban exposure to airborne pollutants and their effects on human health suggests that advanced instrumentation and information technology will soon allow researchers and policymakers to gauge the health risks of air pollution on an individual level.

In the past, pollution measurement has been relatively crude in terms of compositional, spatial, and temporal resolution. There have been significant improvements in the ability to conduct granular measurement of air pollutants, and this has enabled more awareness and more focused local policy actions, as addressed below. We outline more recent progress and the most current practices in the ability to measure pollution exposure at the individual level, rather than in geographical terms.

The level of practical use of these personal monitoring methods has not yet been developed to the point of directly impacting policy (e.g., by their application for ambient air regulatory purposes), but the potential is high. We detail an illustrative study designed to turn that potential into practice by measuring individuals’ exposures over a prolonged period of time, along with measures of factors that influence health outcomes, including economic, behavioral, biological, familial, and environmental contexts. Though other parallel projects may well be in planning elsewhere, we describe this initiative, which is currently being applied in New York City, as a pilot study for the method applied in a very large metropolitan area.

We expect that such individual-level studies will deepen the understanding of the health outcomes of pollution exposure, enable personal preventive actions, motivate collective adjustment, thereby enabling more effective policies. There are challenges in enabling policies that limit personal exposures, but the likely improvements in health and welfare are potentially massive.

—Caplin et al.

In New York City alone, the economic impact of premature death from causes related to air pollution, including asthma and other respiratory conditions and cardiovascular complications, exceeds $30.7 billion a year. Globally, 4.2 million deaths per year are attributable to airborne pollution, making it the fifth-ranking mortality risk factor according to a 2015 study published in the Lancet.

The open-access paper, published in Nature Communications, explains how data gleaned from environmental sensors mounted on buildings and lamp poles, as well as mobile and wearable sensors, were combined with information on socioeconomic status, commuting patterns, and lifestyle habits such as outdoor exercise to develop models of pollution exposures at the neighborhood level.

Such studies were conducted in major urban centers, including New York City, Hong Kong, and San Francisco, and informed public policy on air pollution limits and climate action strategies.

The authors argue that advanced sensing and information technologies can be used to even greater advantage, offering the potential for far more granular assessments at the level of the individual.

Masoud Ghandehari, an associate professor in NYU Tandon’s Department of Civil and Urban Engineering and the Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP), an leader of the study explained that population-level assessments overlook factors such as personal mobility—including commuting by car, bus, bicycle, or on foot, and often do not consider indoor climate control conditions or life stage.

For example, students and working adults are more mobile than older people and are therefore more exposed, while children experience lifelong adversities.

Socioeconomic status is also a known factor for increased exposure to airborne pollutants as well as increased risk of asthma and cardiovascular disease.

People from all points on the economic spectrum live in polluted areas, yet they often have different health outcomes. Using technology to study individual associations between air pollution and health outcomes—rather than group associations—will yield evidence-based arguments for change that would particularly impact individuals at higher risk of negative health impacts.

—Masoud Ghandehari


  • Andrew Caplin, Masoud Ghandehari, Chris Lim, Paul Glimcher & George Thurston (2019) “Advancing environmental exposure assessment science to benefit society” Nature Communications volume 10, Article number: 1236 doi: 10.1038/s41467-019-09155-4


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