Medical technologies to fight air pollution in our cities

Charlotte Edwards 28 February 2019 (Last Updated February 27th, 2019 16:01)

Air pollution is a serious health concern in many parts of the world, from Delhi to London. But can personal medical devices play a part in mitigating the effects of poor air quality? We take a look at the options out there.

Medical technologies to fight air pollution in our cities
Christopher Dobbing founded the Cambridge Mask Co in 2015 after working in China and finding that many of the young people he was working with had developed serious respiratory illnesses due to air pollution. Credit: Cambridge Mask.

Late last year, research by the University of Chicago revealed that air pollution could be reducing global life expectancy rates by an average of 1.8 years per person. These figures would make air pollution the world’s deadliest killer.

In parts of India, the country with the second largest population in the world, The University of Chicago’s Air Quality Life Index suggests that high concentrations of air pollution could result in people there living 11 years less than if they lived in a less polluted area.

Breathing in microscopic particles is thought to be the cause of this decreased life span. Particles found in dust, soot, smoke, and diesel fumes are small enough to get right into a person’s lungs and make airways inflamed and swollen. This can result in health issues for people who would otherwise be at peak fitness but is especially bad for those already suffering from a lung condition such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

With rises in air pollution also being associated with surges in conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, obesity and heart diseases, more action than ever before is being taken by governments to try and reduce pollution. In January 2019, the UK Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, launched the Clean Air Strategy, which aims to cut the costs of air pollution in the country by £1.7bn each year by 2020, a figure which will rise to £5.3bn every year from 2030.

But with air pollution already being a claustrophobic issue, what can individuals be doing to try and lessen the negative impacts on their health? The following are some of the most popular medical technologies to fight air pollution in our cities.

Military grade pollution masks

Pollution masks may be considered the most basic of tools when it comes to protecting yourself from pollution but in more recent years they have become more technologically advanced.

Christopher Dobbing founded the Cambridge Mask Co in 2015 after working in China and finding that many of the young people he was working with had developed serious respiratory illnesses due to air pollution. The company now has offices in the UK, Beijing and Hong Kong.

Cambridge Masks are considered to be military grade and filter air through three different layers of material. The first layer of the masks is designed to filter out large particles such as dust. The second layer of the popular N99 mask is made of a three-ply non-woven melt-blow polypropylene and is said to filter out particles just less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter. The third layer is a military grade carbon filter, which is made of 100% pure activated carbon cloth. This cloth has also been used to make products used by arm forces around the world to protect against chemical, biological and nuclear warfare.

Another advanced pollution mask is the Airinum Urban Air Mask 2.0 which has five layers of protective filters. Like Dobbing, one of Airnum’s co-founders was also inspired to create pollution masks after travelling abroad to India and struggling with the air pollution there.

Lung protecting inhalers

A study by Asthma UK found that just under two thirds of people with asthma claim that poor air quality makes their symptoms worse and puts them at greater risk of having an asthma attack. Taking preventive medications every day, such as asthma inhalers, makes a patient more likely to be able to cope with high pollution days.

German medical devices company Bitop has created an inhaler which has the potential to protect lungs against air pollution. The inhaler contains a molecule called ectoine, which was first found in bacteria in the Egyptian desert. When delivered to the lungs, ectoine can stabilise water on the surface of lung cells so that a protective layer is formed. This barrier can reduce the damage and inflammation associated with fine pollution particles coming into contact with lungs.

The inhaler was created by Bitop in association with researchers at the IUF Leibniz Research Institute for Environmental Medicine, Düsseldorf. When the device was first revealed, the researchers urged governments not to use it as an excuse to stop attempting to reduce air pollution.

Propeller Health is another company to watch in the smart inhaler market. It has created a smart inhaler system which includes sensors that are attached to an asthma inhaler, a mobile app, and an analytical system to help patients track their medication use and make sure they never miss a dose. Missed doses could be especially dangerous for patients when pollution levels are high.

Pollutant reducing air purifiers

According to a report by the United States Environmental Protection Agency indoor air pollution can be two to five times worse than outdoors. This can be due to a number of factors including cigarette smoke, air fresheners and any other unnatural products being released into the atmosphere. Doctors have previously recommended air purifiers to patients with lung conditions such as asthma but they have recently become more mainstream.

Devic Earth is a company that creates air purifying technology on both a mass and minimal scale. According to the company, it can improve air quality by 33% by reducing pollutants that are damaging to human health. These pollutants include particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), nitrogen oxides, and sulphur dioxide.

The Devic Earth Pure Skies 3000 is a device that can be fitted throughout an entire building. The technology uses pulsated radio waves to accelerate minuscule particles in the air so they settle faster during a process called dry deposition.

Breathing Space is another air purifying company which selects and sells devices that can make air in indoor environments much easier to breathe. Based in the UK, the company sells a range of air purifiers which have been designed to reduce traffic pollution and will only advocate those that have a special type of carbon in the filter, which can remove harmful nitrogen dioxide. The new Blue Pure 221 Air Purifier from Blueair contains one of these filters and is said to clean an entire volume of air in rooms up to 57 m² (620 ft²) completely five times per hour.