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How GPS Apps Can Steer You Away From Pollution 2021

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Key Takeaways

A variety of navigation apps can help you set a route around heavily polluted areas.Bicycle manufacturers and carmakers are turning to hyperlocal pollution data in a bid to improve health.You can also check local air quality on your smartphone. MixMedia / Getty Images

New navigation apps can help you set a route around heavily polluted areas in a bid to save your lungs. 

E-bike maker Cowboy recently added a navigation feature to the latest version of its app so bikers can avoid high-pollution areas. Automaker Tata Motors allows drivers to see real-time information about air quality in their vicinity on their car dashboards, and issues alerts when drivers enter a region with poor air quality. Getting hyperlocal data on air pollution is essential, experts say.

"Just as our air changes with the wind and weather patterns, so does air pollution," Christoph Burkhardt, CEO of air purifier manufacturer OneLife, said in an email interview. "It virtually can change minute by minute, and if you do not have an air purifier that is linked to real-time monitoring, there's no way for that purifier to optimize its performance to the level of air pollution it's facing."

Air You Shouldn't Breathe

Air pollution is a growing concern. The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified air pollution as a significant health threat responsible for close to 7 million deaths per year. WHO data shows nine out of 10 people breathe air that exceeds guideline limits and contains high levels of pollutants, with low- and middle-income countries suffering from the highest exposures. 

Both Cowboy and Tata Motors find routes around pollution by using data produced by air quality monitoring company BreezoMeter. The Apple Weather app also employs the company's real-time, hyperlocal air quality information.

"If they are able to rely on their navigation to guide them through less-polluted areas, then the amount of contaminants being breathed in will be reduced."

BreezoMeter provides live air quality data for pollution, pollen, and fires. It also forecasts data for pollen (three days in advance) and pollution (four days in advance). These capabilities span more than 100 countries with data on 34 specific pollutants. The company claims its data is accurate down to 16 feet thanks to more than 47,000 sensors worldwide, including meteorological data, satellites, weather, fire, and sandstorm events, and live traffic information.

"Air pollution is typically monitored by government monitoring stations, satellites, and low-cost sensors, but these methods aren't as accurate as necessary," Ran Korber, CEO and co-founder of BreezoMeter, said in an email interview. "Government sensors, for example, don't actually report in real-time because the information gathered is typically used to inform regulatory planning and was never intended for real-time decision-making."

Peter Cade / Getty Images

Highways and streets are extremely polluted, Glory Dolphin Hammes, CEO of the North American division of air purifier company IQAir, said in an email interview. Vehicles emit toxins such as benzene, sulfur dioxide, soot, and other particles, so you're at greater risk of breathing in harmful pollutants, Hammes added.

Freight trucks release even more pollutants than standard vehicles, so routes heavily traveled by those vehicles could be more polluted, Hammes said. 

"Integrating hyperlocal air quality data into navigation apps could help drivers find routes that have fewer freight trucks, that are devoid of factories and refineries emitting particles into the air, and bypass ports," she said.

Exercisers Beware

The ability to integrate pollution data with navigation apps is crucial for those traveling and those who like to exercise outside, Michael D. Ham, co-founder and president of Pure365, said in an email interview. "If they are able to rely on their navigation to guide them through less-polluted areas, then the amount of contaminants being breathed in will be reduced," he added.

"Just as our air changes with the wind and weather patterns, so does air pollution."

You also can check local air quality on your smartphone. Some of the apps that integrate pollution data are the iOS Weather app, BreezoMeter, Aclima's web app, and the Environmental Protection Agency's AirNow app.

Unfortunately, people tend to be less concerned about air pollution than water quality, experts say. 

"There are areas where you wouldn't just jump in a river or drink the tap water, and the reason is that someone constantly monitors water quality for you," Burkhardt said. "With air, though, you don't really have a choice. You breathe it whether it's polluted or not."