New UBC network to localize data on air pollution

Research team to analyze B.C. air quality to save lives

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By Christi Walter

A team of UBC experts wants to measure Vancouver’s air quality in finer detail than what is currently possible, to help combat localized pollution issues.

A coalition of researchers from varying disciplines have teamed up as the Rapid Air Improvement Network (RAIN) to test local air quality for quick data collection. Using sensors ranging in size from that of a cell phone to that of a loaf of bread, RAIN plans to gather highly specific air quality research to compare air pollution and emissions across regions. They will also study the impact of new technologies on the air we breathe.

Filling in the data gap with new technology

Steven Rogak, one of RAIN’s principal investigators, said localized differences in air quality are difficult for existing networks to pick up because they’re too sparse. RAIN will be able to make up for this gap.

The team wants to analyze and collect data from local areas, which can be coupled with local developmental policies and issues of social justice, according to Rogak.

“Some communities are more affected than others, for example,” he said. “These are things that the existing networks can’t typically pick up on because there just aren’t enough sensors.”

One of their first projects will be measuring the air quality in some newer buildings at UBC with different HVAC systems. But Rogak said their goal is to expand their research quickly to other areas.

“Often [the sensors] are battery operated, so you could put them on a streetlight or a moving vehicle. Imagine putting them on police cars or taxis,” said Michael Brauer, a RAIN team member and a professor of medicine at UBC. “They’re actually moving and they’re computing data into a server, but it’s real-time information and it also gives you much more granular information — like right here, right now.”

Graphic courtesy UBC media relations.

Saving lives

They also plan to monitor the impacts of wildfire smoke which might inspire communities to do things like offer local clean air shelters when heavy smoke hits the area.

“We want to test new technologies or, let’s say, policy actions, repeatedly evaluate whether they work or not, and then sort of scale up,” Brauer said.

An estimated 15,300 premature deaths per year can be linked to air pollution in Canada, according to a 2021 Health Canada report. The World Health Organization reports that worldwide, nine out of 10 people breathe air that exceeds WHO guideline limits for pollutants. Low- and middle-income countries are most at risk.

Brauer says air pollution has been found to affect everything from birthweight to neurodevelopmental diseases.

The team has an eye to expand their research globally.

“We’re seeing now around four million deaths globally every year that we would say are attributable to air pollution,” said Brauer. “If you took away air pollution, we would see four million less deaths that year.”

RAIN will receive $2 million in funding for its upcoming research from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation.

Mark Lagacé, Senior Programs Officer at CFI, said the organization aims to invest in new research that’s going to provide a benefit to Canadians.

“Things that have a direct impact on air quality will have a direct impact on everybody,” Lagacé said.

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