For decades now, scientists have been monitoring air pollution in order to better understand how atmospheric contaminants affect our health. The gathered data can tell us the amount and type of pollutants that are in the air, which can in turn sometimes be linked to health problems in the area. What that data doesn’t tell us, however, is the effect that different types of physical activities can have on the amount of pollutants that are breathed in – if a smog warning is issued, for instance, does that mean we shouldn’t go outside at all, or just that we shouldn’t go jogging outside? A new personal exposure monitoring device, known as the MicroPEM, has been designed to answer such questions.

The unit, created by North Carolina-based RTI International, is small enough to be worn on an individual’s body as they perform different tasks. Besides measuring the pollutant content of the surrounding air, it is also able to monitor the person’s activity level via built-in accelerometers.

In a recent study supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, scientists from RTI and several American universities outfitted test subjects with MicroPEMs. These people then performed a number of activities, such as sitting, standing, walking on a treadmill, climbing stairs, or sweeping.

When the motion data was subsequently processed, researchers were able to accurately calculate the breathing rates that accompanied the different activities. This data could then be combined with a real-time record of the pollutants that were present at the time, along with the subjects’ physical reactions.

“This technology is a game changer in exposure health studies,” said Dr. Steve Chillrud, a research professor at Columbia University and co-author of the study. “With adult ventilation rates varying by a factor of four across low to moderate activities, any study looking for associations with biomarkers or health outcomes should be better served by potential inhaled dose than with exposure concentrations.”

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