New study aims to highlight pollution risks of megacity street canyons

The project aims to use the city of Hong Kong as an urban laboratory in its attempt to study the pervasiveness of airborne pollution (Photo: Shutterstock)

A novel study undertaken by an international collaboration of universities – headed by King's College London – aims to assess the impact of toxic fumes and other pollutants on the residents of high-rise buildings. Such studies are becoming increasingly important to metropolitan areas where real estate is scarce, forcing us to build ever upwards in order to satiate the ever-increasing need for accommodation.

The study will involve placing sensors on the inside and outside of high-rise buildings, creating the first-ever three-dimensional city-scale pollution model. The pilot project is set to last two and a half years, with research phases covering both winter and summer seasons, and will be based in and around Hong Kong, a city where over 40 percent of the population live higher than the 14th floor.

The research will center around a phenomenon known as megacity canyons. This is an effect created when pollution is trapped between a series of adjoining high-rise buildings, essentially creating an artificial canyon. As the pollution builds up, there is an increased risk of the contaminated air making its way into residential buildings. The study will require sensors to be placed in two sets of locations. Detectors will gather readings from 100 pollution sites situated within the city of Hong Kong itself, as well as a further 200 passive points scattered around the archipelago.

By distributing sensors both within the city and the surrounding countryside, the study hopes to reveal what percentage of the pollution originates from the city itself, and how much is blown in from the Chinese mainland via seasonal winter winds.

Future plans for the study include taking the data collected by the sensors and examining it in the context of the hospital records of patients living in contaminated areas isolated by the study, whose ailments are believed to be caused by the heightened levels of pollution.

However, Dr. Benjamin Barren of King's Environmental Research Group, one of the international collaboration of scientists working on the project, believes that the project must be adapted in order to be applicable on a wider scale. "Hong Kong is a city with its own unique character," he states. "We therefore have the challenge of creating a method that's not just effective in this city, but in many others as well. A challenge that we hope to test in future studies."

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