The media ran stories detailing air pollution figures this month, even providing sites where you can check the pollution levels where you live. Unless you can see smog, you’re unlikely to know air pollution is around you. However, it is likely to affect your everyday life and your lifetime health. With air pollution at an all time high, and with links to asthma, heart disease and lung cancer, what is science doing to help clean the air we breathe?
Asthma is a condition where the bronchi of the lungs spasm making it difficult, or sometimes impossible, to breathe. It affects 5.4 million people in the UK, that is 1 in 11. 250,000 people live with severe asthma, meaning even “climbing the stairs can feel like a marathon”. In 2016 1,410 people died in the UK from an asthma attack, with 185 people admitted to hospital every day. Asthma can be caused by numerous triggers such as pollen, mould, smoke, and weather changes to name a few. Air pollution is also a recognised cause for some asthma sufferers. A study in 2014 highlighted 15% of all childhood asthma correlated to an increase in air pollution and urbanisation, suggesting also that it will only increase if interventions are not made. There is currently no cure for asthma and many sufferers use an inhaler which, when sprayed, delivers a drug which can help relax the muscles that are contracting uncontrollably. So for those whose asthma is caused by air pollution, is there another solution?
For those who suffer from asthma due to air pollution, it would be best to avoid living in built-up, busy areas with a lot of polluting factors. However, this is not always possible and why should people be forced from places due to something they can’t control? In the past some children who suffered with asthma (and were from cities such as London), were sent to special countryside retreats, relieving them from the immediate effects of the air pollution. Many people found this helped, so how do we clean the air?
Air pollution is caused by a number of factors including carbon dioxide (CO2), CFC’s (chlorofluorocarbons) and sulfur dioxide (SO2). Air filters have been suggested as a great way to combat current air pollution in the homes of sufferers. HEPA filters are in a lot of air filtration systems and have been around since the 1940’s in facilities where nuclear materials were used. These filters have also been used in vacuum cleaners, collecting dust particles. The filter has a mesh like structure, with a large surface area which can trap large particles such as pollen and dust mites. However smaller pollutants, such as viruses, are too small to be trapped by the HEPA filter, and bacteria or mould are actually able to grow on the filters, adding to the problem some asthma sufferers face.
Dyson have created a new air filter system: Dyson Pure Cool (image from: http://www.patchesoflifebyjessa.com/2016/08/dyson-dyson-pure-cool-link-purifier-fan.html). This system uses a HEPA filter and a carbon filter, claiming it is able to filter out smaller molecules than just a HEPA filter alone. Their new technology has the ability to filter nitrogen dioxide (NO2), VOCs (which are found in household cleaning products), and ultra fine particles and viruses. This is a large improvement when compared to HEPA filters. These filters can be stand-alone towers or desktop models. The technology also has an app (obviously) where you can monitor the effectiveness of the purifying system and view what pollutants are high in your household. This system however, still doesn’t filter those tiny air pollutants.
Yogi Goswami, whose son suffers severely from asthma, decided to use his research knowledge to produce a filtration system that could potentially alleviate his son’s condition. Using PECO (i.e.photo electrochemical oxidation) technology, the research team created a filter system which bettered the results of both HEPA and carbon filters, and maintained very low pollutant levels over a longer period of time too. (Graph from: https://molekule.com/blog/how-a-new-approach-to-cleaning-air-alleviated-my-sons-asthma/)
In 2014 Yogi and his family founded the company Molekule, making it possible to produce the air purification technology for the general public. “Molekule is a revolutionary new kind of air purifier. Instead of just trying to collect pollutants on filters, Molekule uses nanotechnology to actually destroy them at the molecular level. Allergens, mold, bacteria, viruses and airborne chemicals are all completely eliminated, leaving nothing but clean, healthy air in your home”.
It is wonderful to hear of scientists still inspired to create new technology to help others directly. Realistically, the best solution for everyone would be to reduce our own carbon footprint as much as possible; cycle or walk where you can, use public transport when you can’t etc. However in the short term, for those who suffer immediately from the effect of growing air pollution, hopefully PECO air filtration systems can improve the daily lives of asthma sufferers.