Whether we’re stuck in traffic or under someone’s armpit, commuting generally stinks. Add to an already long list of complaints the fact that we’re often traveling through polluted air and suddenly the day is off to a very grim start.

Now, scientists at the University of California, San Diego are intervening. A new app called CitiSense is being used to measure air quality in real time. The purpose of the tech is twofold. First, users will find out whether they’re traveling through health danger zones (and presumably find less hazardous routes). And second, scientists will be able to collect data about air quality all over the world.

How It Works

CitiSensePhoto: Jacobs School of Engineering

CitiSense comes with sensors that detect ozone, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide — some of the most common pollutants produced by cars and trucks. The info shows up on a smartphone screen in the form of a color-coded scale based on the EPA’s ratings for air quality. The stats are also sent to scientists, who can analyze the numbers and figure out which areas are the most plagued by pollution.

Those sensors may sound snazzy, but so far only a few people have tested them out. For about a month, 30 participants, all in the San Diego area, carried the device around and gave researchers enough data to present at a conference earlier this year. Right now some San Diego State University researchers are using the tech to test the air quality in San Ysidro (on the border between the U.S. and Mexico). In the future they hope to study, and limit, the effects of air pollution on asthmatic children in that community.

The Takeaway

This new tech arrives at a moment when frightening stats about the cost of air pollution are all over the news. Earlier this month researchers reported the effects of air pollution kill 35,000 people per year and air pollution can significantly increase the risk of stroke. Other recent research suggests we live longer when we breathe clean airEffect of air pollution control on life expectancy in the United States: an analysis of 545 u.s. Counties for the period from 2000 to 2007. Correia, A.W., Pope, C.A. 3rd, Dockery, D.W., et al. Department of Biostatistics, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, MA. Epidemiology 2013;24(1):23-31..

The biggest problem we can see with CitiSense has a dollar sign in front of it. The sensors cost $1,000 each, though researchers say it would be easy for them to mass-produce a whole bunch of devices and sell them at a much cheaper price. And at some point, the scientists say, they hope to build the sensors right into our smartphones.

Right now CitiSense sounds like a smart, relatively easy way to collect data about the air around us, even though it’s reach is pretty limited. We haven’t had a chance to personally try out the device, but once the tech is more widely tested (and doesn’t cost as much as a week’s rent in New York City), we’ll definitely snag some sensors.

Would you use an app to measure the air quality in your neighborhood? Let us know in the comments below or tweet the author directly @ShanaDLebowitz.

Photo: Jacobs School of Engineering