Can a Pollution Tracker Help Us Breathe Easier?

Coming soon: A wearable smart device for tracking air pollution wherever your feet may take you. (Photo: Plume Labs)

I’ve come to terms with the fact that the air quality in the New York City neighborhood that I’ve lived in for the past 10-plus years isn’t always so great.

It’s a sleepy, mixed residential-industrial district on the southwest Brooklyn waterfront known for its rich seafaring history, loveably dogged character and the seemingly endless parade of exhaust-belching semi trucks that rumble down the neighborhood’s narrow streets at all hours. Also in the neighborhood — and at the end of my block — is a cruise terminal where luxury liners sit idle for hours as their funnels exhale heavy black smoke. (The terminal is equipped with an emissions-curtailing “shore power” system, although it’s unclear how many vessels are actually cutting their engines and plug in while at port.)

That being said, I'd love to see the air quality in my neighborhood to improve. But do I want to know the exact levels of air pollution in my immediate vicinity each and every time I step out the door?

There's no denying that, on certain days, a pint-sized portable air quality monitor could be helpful, at least for the sake of awareness. Due for release later this year is exactly that: a “mobile and truly personal” air quality tracker that, when paired with a smartphone, enables users to track air pollutant levels wherever they may be.

Flow, a personal air quality tracking device
Flow, a wearable air quality tracker from Plume Labs, comes complete with a handsome leather strap and charging dock. (Photo: Plume Labs)

Dubbed Flow, this sleek wearable Bluetooth device from French startup Plume Labs was conceived to make “air pollution personal.” Equipped with advanced sensors that track airborne pollutants including particulate matter (PM2.5, PM10), nitrogen dioxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs); colored LEDs that indicate how much pollution you’ve been exposed to; and a handy-dandy leather strap, Flow has been described as a “sort of Fitbit” for air quality.

The comparison makes sense. As Ellie Anzilotti notes for Fast Company, we’re a society obsessed with quantifying everything and anything, particularly when it pertains to health: how many steps we’ve taken, how many calories we’ve consumed, how many pounds we’ve shed, how many glasses of water we’ve guzzled ... the list goes on. Considering the detrimental impact that poor air quality — described by Plume Labs as the “health challenge of our time” — can have on our overall well-being, it only makes sense that we’ll soon be able to track that with a handheld device as well.

Pocked-sized pollution tracker

Flow is a natural follow-up to Plume Labs’ debut 2015 release, a free air pollution forecast app dubbed Air Report. Boasting over 100,000 global users, Air Report received a warm welcome at launch. TechCrunch writes that the app “strikes the right balance between providing insightful information about air pollution and not being too complicated.”

Flow product shot, Plume Labs
Flow product shot, Plume Labs. (Photo: Plume Labs)

Whereas Air Report gives users predictions geared to help them plan their day and adjust any outdoor activities, Flow picks up real-time personal pollution data wherever it goes and sends that data back to Plume Labs for analysis.

“Over time, the personal data will help us make our forecasts and maps even better,” Plume Labs’ founder, Romain Lacombe, tells Fast Company. “What people don’t realize about pollution and air quality is how local it is.”

Beta testing for the device was held over a three-month span in London, which seems about right. (Previously in London, Plume Labs launched the Pigeon Air Patrol campaign, an awareness-raising two-day stunt that involved deploying racing pigeons with tiny nitrogen dioxide sensors strapped to their backs across the city.)

The primary goal of Flow is to enable users to “find clean air and build healthy routines.” In other words, it’s a pocket-sized air pollution avoidance tool. But beyond day-to-day use, Lacombe and his colleagues are confident that Flow will also generate awareness and, ultimately, action, when it comes to curbing air pollution.

“The long-term vision is that the more information people have about the air and how it affects their health, the more support they will be able to generate for policies that reduce pollution,” Lacombe tells Fast Company.

With a $139 pre-sale sticker price (post-launch, the retail price jumps to $199), I’m not sure if Flow will join my (decidedly limited) arsenal of devices. But on a windless summer day when my own neighborhood is enveloped in a grimy haze, I do know that I'd breathe easier knowing exactly what I’m contending with when I step out the door.