Health + Behavior

New app lets you check air quality as easily as checking the weather

UCLA research team designs convenient way to help those affected by air pollution

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Yareli Sanchez lives in Los Angeles and jogs regularly, but she never used to know if the day’s air quality was bad until after she had already set out for a run — her chest would tighten and it would become hard to breathe. She knew poor air quality triggered her asthma, but she didn’t have a convenient way to check the day’s pollution levels.

For the past few months, instead of using trial-and-error, she’s checked UCLA’s new AirForU app, which uses GPS data to give her local air quality ratings. The app is useful for anyone in the U.S. who sees a hazy skyline and wonders how safe it is to breathe outside air.

“I depend on the AirForU app now, and I use it every time I plan on running,” said Sanchez, who helped test it before its launch. “The app is really convenient for helping me manage my asthma and minimize my exposure to pollution.”

The free app, released today on iPhone and Android, delivers local air-quality measurements directly to the user’s phone. It provides real-time updates every hour and a prediction for the next day. Asthmatics, families planning a trip to the playground, people who exercise outside and anyone else concerned with air quality can use the app to make decisions about where and whether to go outdoors.

“The AirForU app tells people how bad the air quality is in the places they care about, like their neighborhood, their place of work or their favorite park,” said Magali Delmas, a professor of environmental economics at UCLA and head of the team that created the app. “And when we see wildfires in the next few months, this will be a useful tool because there will be a lot of variation in the air quality from one neighborhood to another based on the location and size of the fire.”

The app draws data from monitors set up nationwide and tracked by the Environmental Protection Agency. Users can also search for air quality in specific cities or zip codes, and push notifications alert the user air pollution if becomes unhealthy for sensitive groups.

AirForU is a joint project between UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and UCLA Health. UCLA doctors plan to recommend the app to patients with heart or lung problems.

“Research has shown that, on days with poor air quality, outdoor activity puts people at higher risk of inhaling particles that cumulatively lead to increased risk of lung cancer, heart disease, stroke, and many other health problems,” said pediatric pulmonary asthma expert Dr. Sande Okelo, director of the Pediatric Asthma Center at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA. “But many of our patients don’t have a convenient way to check the daily air quality. I expect the AirForU app will be very important in helping them make better decisions about exposure to pollution.”

The AirForU developers also devised the app to be part of a research project to learn how much people know about and react to the health effects of poor air quality. The app encourages users to participate by asking them to respond to questions such as whether they decided to stay inside due to poor air quality, whether they suffered an asthma attack that day, or whether they installed indoor air filters.

“One of the hurdles in research is getting people to sign up, participate, and follow through, but since everyone has their smartphones on them all the time, mobile phones are becoming a new way to do research,” said Aanchal Kohli, a researcher on the project and a UCLA doctoral candidate in environmental science and engineering.

“We want to understand what steps people are taking to protect themselves from air pollution, or whether they even know how it affects them,” Kohli said.

The app provides a six-level air quality measurement scale, from good to hazardous. Separate tabs give pointers about how to respond (for example, “reduce outdoor exertion”), the locations of large manufacturing facilities emitting toxic chemicals nearby and frequently asked questions. Research has shown that poor air quality disproportionately affects asthmatics, heart and lung disease patients, pregnant women, young children and the elderly.

Delmas was inspired to help people make better decisions about how to respond to poor air quality during a visit to family in India. When the air appeared to clear after several particularly smoggy-looking days, she and her husband were unsure whether it was safe to go outside for some exercise.

“My husband said the air was good enough to go running, while I disagreed and worried it would trigger his asthma, but we didn’t have any scientific evidence either way,” Delmas said. “That got me thinking that there must be some way to track why some days he’ll have an attack and some days he won’t.”

She hopes to make the app available in India and China, where air pollution is an even bigger problem than in the United States.

“We want to know how people react to knowing the air quality levels so we can understand the most effective ways to protect people,” Delmas said.

Delmas and Kohli’s team includes postdoctoral scholar Stephen Locke, recent UCLA electrical engineering Ph.D. graduate Victor Chen, and computer science undergraduates Walter Qian and Qingwei Lan.

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