Monitoring air pollution: Use of early warning systems for public health

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Research confirming the detrimental impact poor ambient air quality and episodes of abnormally high pollutants has on public health, plus differential susceptibility, calls for improved understanding of this complex topic among all walks of society. The public and particularly, vulnerable groups, should be aware of their quality of air, enabling action to be taken in the event of increased pollution. Policy makers must have a sound awareness of current air quality and future trends, to identify issues, guide policies and monitor their effectiveness. These attitudes are dependent upon air pollution monitoring, forecasting and reporting, serving all interested parties. Apart from the underlying national regulatory obligation a country has in reporting air quality information, data output serves several purposes. This review focuses on provision of real-time data and advanced warnings of potentially health-damaging events, in the form of national air quality indices and proactive alert services. Some of the challenges associated with designing these systems include technical issues associated with the complexity of air pollution and its science. These include inability to provide precise exposure concentrations or guidance on long-term/cumulative exposures or effects from pollutant combinations. Other issues relate to the degree to which people are aware and positively respond to these services. Looking to the future, mobile devices such as cellular phones, equipped with sensing applications have potential to provide dynamic, temporally and spatially precise exposure measures for the mass population. The ultimate aim should be to empower people to modify behaviour—for example, when to increase medication, the route/mode of transport taken to school or work or the appropriate time to pursue outdoor activities—in a way that protects their health as well as the quality of the air they breathe.

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