Smartphones used to detect air pollution in EU study

20 November 2012
By Anna Kårhammar
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Air pollution

Air pollution

Environmental sensor-equipped, GPS-enabled smartphones are set to be used in researching possible adverse effects of chemicals exposure to the human body, in the EU’s biggest to-date investment into environmental health research.

The €8.7m Exposomics project sets out to study the potential hazards of chemical exposure to the body, while at the same time analysing blood and urine samples to determine risk factors and see whether a chemical fingerprint can be detected in bodily fluids.

“It has become clear that the diseases with the greatest burden, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, are mainly caused by factors other than genetics. These are likely to include aspects of lifestyle and the environment, but the precise roles of different factors in causing diseases are not well understood,” said Professor Paolo Vineis, School of Public Health, Imperial College London.

The term ‘exposome’ refers to the environmental components affecting a person’s health over the course of their life time, including lifestyle factors and chemicals exposure.

“We are all exposed to low levels of environmental pollutants every day, such as diesel exhaust, tobacco smoke, and pesticides. It’s very difficult to assess the health effects of these exposures, because often there are no unexposed people to compare with,” Prof Vineis added.

In order to measure the exposomes, high-tech tools are being developed, particularly those focusing on air and water pollution during critical periods of life.

“This project will make use of new technologies that allow us to measure personal exposure to pollutants with much greater sensitivity and study their effects in the body. The results will help us develop a better understanding of how exposure to many different pollutants combine to influence our risk of diseases,” said Prof Vineis.

Researchers from 12 partner institutions, led by Imperial College London, are developing a personal exposure monitoring kit which could give a more detailed assessment of the study participants’ environment. 

The kit comes with a smartphone application, which records user activity and location, and measures air pollution via a plug-in sensor.

The researchers will also look for signatures left by risk factors inside the body, including changes in DNA, RNA, proteins and metabolites, and altered levels of chemicals in blood and urine.

Initial results are expected within the next two years.

“It is a major step forward to have European funding directed to this area of research, which is critical for effective prevention of a number of non-communicable diseases,” concluded Dr Christopher Wild, director International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Dr Wild is responsible for first developing the exposome concept, and is a partner on the project

The measuring kit could become commercially available in the future.

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