Air Pollution In US: Google Street View Cars Can Map Pollution Levels

    Google Street View vehicles equipped with instruments to measure air quality and pollution are offering insights into the level of chemicals in the air. A test conducted in Oakland, California, to test the air showed the measurements static instruments take frequently are inaccurate representations of air quality.

    The study was a collaboration between the Environmental Defense Fund and Google Earth Outreach. Vehicles equipped with sophisticated instruments called a “fast-response pollution measurement platform” traveled each street in the test area during the day an average of 30 times on weekdays, the study said.

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    The vehicles were able to cover ground stationary instruments are unable to cover or measure. The results of all the data collected were able to narrow down pollution levels on a street-by-street basis, offering residents information about the exact chemicals they breathe in and are exposed to on a regular basis. These findings are especially important in cities where the pollution levels can vary greatly from street to street, the study said.

    The sensors on the vehicles measured levels of black carbon, a byproduct of burning fuels; nitric oxide, associated with traffic and exhaust fumes, and nitrogen dioxide, which forms when the nitric oxide mixes with the oxygen in the air. These pollutants can cause a range of ailments like respiratory issues and increase the risk of heart attack, stroke and some cancers, the Environmental Defense Fund said.

    The study maps each pollutant on a map showing every street the vehicles drove to take measurements. Certain daytime hotspots were identified in the data as areas where the pollution levels consistently exceeded the pollutant levels nearby. Additionally, as you might have predicted, the pollution levels were higher on highways than on residential streets. There were also hot spots outside industrial businesses that produced more pollution than a home would.

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    The results show the study could be recreated in more cities or areas and that just 10-20 average drives would be enough to collect solid data. While more days were better than fewer, the study showed 10-20 was a reliable range. The study also found the costs of this measurement process is comparable to those of ambient or static measuring techniques.

    The study used Google Street View vehicles, but a fleet of taxis or even public transportation vehicles like buses outfitted with sensors would serve the purpose. If this data were to be collected on a grander scale, it could change the way air pollution and policy are handled, adding new depth to the data already available on the pollution levels.