EDF Health

Air pollution: E-commerce’s sustainability problem that isn’t the cardboard box

Aileen NowlanSenior Manager, EDF+Business

This post originally appeared on EDF+Business.

With the click of a button, our groceries, clothes, personal care products, household items – just about anything – could arrive on our doorsteps in a neatly packaged cardboard box. It’s convenience, delivered. But at what cost?

What happens behind-the-scenes to get a package delivered to your door is taking a toll on our planet and our health. Freight is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gases and a major source of local air pollution. The rise in e-commerce is a growing part of increased pollution and poor air quality.

The truth is, “free shipping” isn’t really free. We’re just paying for it in other ways.

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Wearable sensors drive demand for cleaner air

Tasha Kosviner, Environment Writer/ Editor

This blog originally appeared on Medium.

Brooklyn Bridge

Most Fridays, my eight-year-old son and I take a walk. Our route takes us across some of the busiest traffic intersections in Brooklyn. As we walk, we talk. My son has lots to say and he bounces from topic to topic in funny and unexpected ways. This being New York, we often have to shout over the sound of car horns, sirens and buses roaring away from curbs.

Earlier this year, our conversation centered around the little white gadget clipped to my bag. Known as an AirBeam, it was personal air quality monitor, able to sense and measure the pollution in the air around us as we walked. The data it gathered was fed, via Bluetooth, to an app on my phone, giving us real time information about what was in the air we were breathing. What we saw was sobering.


With increasing global concern about air pollution, the availability of, and interest in, wearable air quality monitors has accelerated in recent years. In addition to the AirBeam, there is now also the Tzoa, the Flow, the ATMOtube, the CleanSpace Tag. A quick search of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and GoFundMe reveals multiple new monitors under development all claiming to give us the lowdown on what’s in the air around us.

Many of these gadgets stream their measurements straight to your smartphone. The AirBeam uses an open-source platform, AirCasting, and the information appears in ever evolving graphs which dip and peak as you move through space and time.

For most of mine and my son’s Friday walk, the lines remained reassuringly green and steady. But as we crossed a bridge above the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, with traffic flying beneath our feet, the PM2.5 line (so-called because the particles detected are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, or one-thirtieth the size of a human hair) suddenly spiked and turned a traffic light red. We stood together and watched it silently for a few seconds.

“What does it mean?” my little boy asked.

I hesitated. The air around us looked clear, the sun shone, the people looked the same. Whatever was happening in the air above that expressway, New York (no surprise here!) didn’t seem to care. Staring at that red line, I realised I didn’t really know what it meant either. Could we stay and safely breathe that air? How long before it started to affect our health? A minute? A week? A year? I did that parent thing and answered without really answering.

“It means we’re moving on,” I tell him. “Let’s walk.”

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What dense sensor networks can teach us about air pollution

Maria Harris is an Environmental Epidemiologist.

It all started with a challenge in 2013: how to engineer pollution-sensing balloons. Thomas Kirchstetter, Adjunct Professor at the University of California, Berkeley and the Director of the Energy Analysis and Environmental Impacts Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, wanted to attach pollution sensors to high altitude weather balloons to measure how black carbon moves throughout the atmosphere.

Black carbon “soot” is emitted from diesel engines on trucks, locomotives, and ships, as well as from wildfires and the combustion of solid fuels for cooking and heating. But available technology to measure this air pollutant wasn’t well suited to handle the changes in temperature and humidity experienced during its ascent through the atmosphere or affordable enough to scale. So, he and Berkeley graduate students Danny Wilson and Julien Caubel researched what it would take to create their own.

Meanwhile, Kirchstetter had been in touch with Joshua Apte, assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, about his work leading Environmental Defense Fund’s mobile pollution monitoring study using Google Street View cars to measure air quality in Oakland. Apte asked Kirchstetter to support the team’s analysis as they examined how pollution concentrations varied from block to block—including black carbon. That’s when a lightbulb went off for Kirchstetter.

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Traffic pollution causes 1 in 5 new cases of kids’ asthma in major cities: How data can help

Dr. Ananya Roy is a Senior Health Scientist

City leadership can ill afford to ignore this issue and must strive for opportunities to prevent new cases of asthma.

landmark new study shines a light on the massive impact of vehicular air pollution on the health of our children. The study estimates that nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – a key traffic air pollutant – leads to approximately 4 million new asthma cases in children across the globe, or 1 in 10 new cases.

To address this pervasive threat, leaders need local data to create targeted approaches and policies. That’s why Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) is leveraging sensor technology to develop novel methods to measure and map air pollution – including NO2 concentrations – block by block in cities across the world, from Oakland to Houston to London.

Cities bear the worst burden

The study, released this month in The Lancet Planetary Health, finds that children living in cities are most at risk of asthma due to NO2 pollution. A staggering 90% of all new cases due to traffic were in urban and adjoining suburban areas.

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Data visualization to drive clean air innovation and improve health

Aileen Nowlan, Senior Manager, EDF+Business

The first time I spoke at a conference about air pollution, the venue was right beside a daycare—a well-regarded chain, no doubt with significant waiting lists. But on the outside, the facility was steps from onramps to a bridge and a major highway, where horns blared and buses and trucks idled at the lights.

The pollution around this daycare was invisible, but because there is still so much we don’t know about air pollution, so were many of the risks.

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