The smog-guzzling buildings fighting deadly pollution

The Palazzo Italia pavilion, to be launched at the 2015 Milan Expo, will be built using "biodynamic" cement, which will remove certain pollutants from the air.

 Air pollution is now the biggest global environmental killer, the WHO has confirmed. The seven million deaths it caused in 2012 exceeded the victims of cigarettes, and is more than double previous estimates.

Air pollution in over half of 1,600 cities surveyed is now above safe limits of Particulate Matter (PM), with the highest cost borne by the poorer regions of South-East Asia and the Western Pacific.

In Delhi, found to have the worst pollution in the world, around 10,000 people die prematurely each year because of pollution. Most of these perish through strokes, heart conditions, and cancer, and the issues are multiplying.
We are now seeing a large number of lung impairments and respiratory problems among children.
Anumita Roy Chowdhury, India's Center for Science and Environment

"We are now seeing a large number of lung impairments and respiratory problems among children," says Anumita Roy Chowdhury, head of the Clean Air Program at India's Center for Science and Environment. "There is a strong correlation with emergency hospitalizations in winter when the pollution is high."

High-tech solutions

But although there is widespread agreement that restricting emissions is an effective solution, badly affected cities are increasingly turning to technological solutions. The Manuel Gea González Hospital in Mexico City unveiled a "smog-eating" facade last year, covering 2,500 square meters with a titanium dioxide coating that reacts with light to neutralize elements of air pollution. Designers claim it negates the effects of 1,000 cars each day.

An even grander project, the Palazzo Italia, will use similar materials over 13,000 square meters across six floors when it opens in Milan in 2015. Dutch scientists have also adapted the system to roads, claiming this can reduce pollution by 45%.

The material is not prohibitively expensive -- adding as little as 4-5% to construction costs. But the impact of such buildings has been limited to their immediate location, and efforts to develop the concept have led to more novel, personalized solutions.

The first pollution-eating poem appeared this May in Sheffield, England, a 20-meter banner of Simon Armitage's "In Praise of Air," coated with titanium dioxide nano-particles that can counteract around 20 cars' worth of pollution each day. While it is a creative tool for promoting a local poetry festival, it also serves as proof of concept that the technology can be incorporated into practically any textile, and will be reproduced on several more banners and posters in the coming months.

But the ultimate goal is to render us all air-purifying units. The poem is an offshoot of Catalytic Clothing, a collaboration between designer Helen Storey and polymer chemist Tony Ryan that aims to incorporate titanium dioxide nano-particles into laundry detergent, so that our outfits are coated.
Clothes are the way to do it because they are ubiquitous.

"Clothes are the way to do it because they are ubiquitous," says Ryan. "In the city of Sheffield we need to get rid of 1,000 tons of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) each year to comply with air quality regulations, which is around three tons per day."

The concept relies on mass participation. Ryan says that one person wearing clothes washed in the detergent could remove 5-6 grams of NO2 from the air every day -- which means Sheffield's population of just over half a million could collectively enable the city to meet its NO2 target.

One drawback is that the laundered material would not distinguish between atmospheric impurities, so that expensive perfume would be neutralized as well as smog, which has been an issue for manufacturers. There have also been suggestions that the particles could be an irritant, although Ryan -- who has been testing the product on himself -- denies this.

Personal protection

A more immediate, easier option is becoming available through a personal pollution monitor. The MicroPEM sensor developed by the Research Triangle Institute (RTI) picks up a range of exposure data to help the user manage risk.


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