As the former environment editor for The Guardian, John Vidal toured the world witnessing our air pollution problem first hand. Here he tells the forgotten stories of the people and places who are breathing our planet’s dirtiest air.

Image for post
Image for post
Dadaab, Kenya, where cows graze amid burning rubbish in one of the largest refugee camps in the world. | Photograph ©Sally Hayden/SOPA Images/Getty Images

Minibuses and lorries belched black and white smoke. Gases from roadside rubbish dumps and nearby factories mixed with traffic fumes from the clogged eight-lane highway, and the hot evening air was filled with a dense photochemical smog making nearby buildings barely visible.

It could have been New Delhi, Jakarta, La Paz or any one of 100 Asian or Latin American megacities, but this was the Mombasa road in Nairobi, Kenya, a city where the number of vehicles doubles every six years and where air pollution is always at hazardous or dangerous levels.

Even in a car, the eyes hurt and the breath came short. Just recently, I was travelling to the airport with a friend who had lived in the city for years but was thinking of returning to Britain because of the pollution: “It is mind-boggling and getting worse,” she said, “people use charcoal, paraffin and wood to heat their homes. You can see the haze of pollution building up from the early morning. I never used to wheeze. But what can you do — stop breathing?” …

Home genome kits are an increasingly popular way of learning more about your history and health. But Sarah Graham asks if they can teach us more about air pollution?

Image for post
Image for post
Will recent advances in genomics mean that we can testing for air pollution-related illnesses in the future? | Illustration MerijnHos ©Dyson

In 2013, Ella Kissi-Debrah died of a fatal asthma attack. The nine-year-old, who lived near the South Circular Road in Lewisham, south-east London, had been suffering from poor respiratory health for 28 months, and was admitted to hospital 28 times. An inquest into her death found that Ella had died from acute respiratory failure and severe asthma.

But in 2018, as the BBC writes: “[a recent] report said it was likely unlawful levels of pollution, which were detected at a monitoring station one mile from Ella’s home, contributed to her fatal asthma attack”.

As a result Judge Mark Lucraft QC, quashed the 2014 inquest and said: “In our judgment, the discovery of new evidence makes it necessary in the interests of justice that a fresh inquest be held.” If high pollution levels are deemed to have played a role in her death, Ella may become the first person in the UK for whom air pollution is listed as the cause of death. …

Unknown to most, the millennial language of emojis contains many hints and clues about the sources of air pollution around you. We investigate some of their causes…

Image for post
Image for post
If Emojis can tell you a lot about your lifestyle, what can they tell you about your pollution? | Illustration ©Dyson

The quality of the air you breathe during your day depends on the choices you make. If you cycle to work you may encounter less pollution than if you take a cab. If you live on a farm you may be breathing in different pollutants to those which people living in cities are exposed to. Your everyday life can include hundreds of different “pollution events” depending on the decisions you make — from playing with their pets to going on holiday to visiting a salon for a blowdry.

One of the most diverse sources of indoor pollution are volatile organic chemical compounds (VOCs) whose composition makes it possible for them to evaporate under normal indoor room temperatures and pressure. This makes them particularly harmful indoors, as once released, they can spread throughout the atmosphere and pollute the environment. Poor ventilation within buildings, something often associated with newer ones, heightens the issue, as the pollutants become trapped inside and cannot escape. …

New York Times correspondent and author of Faster, Higher, Farther, Jack Ewing, tells the inside story of Dieselgate, the Volkswagen emissions scandal

Image for post
Image for post
Animal-rights activists protesting against VW testing car emissions on monkeys | Photography ©Getty

CLEAN DIESEL?

In the 1980s at Audi, a young Ferdinand Piëch, later Volkswagen’s chief executive, was working on a technological innovation that would have far-reaching consequences for VW, Audi’s parent company. It was one of the initiatives Piëch was later most proud of: diesel engines designed for passenger cars. Invented in the 1800s by Rudolf Diesel, diesel has long been in widespread use in trucks and ships, here it provided superior fuel economy and longer engine life. But it was much more difficult to deploy diesel in smaller vehicles.

In all automobile engines, much of the potential energy is wasted because the fuel does not burn completely. In a diesel engine, the fuel — distilled from petroleum in a process different from that for gasoline — is compressed with oxygen inside the cylinders until it becomes so hot from the pressure that it ignites. In a gasoline engine, by contrast, spark plugs cause the fuel to ignite. Diesel engines are less wasteful because the dense, highly compressed fuel and air mixture burns more thoroughly than in a gasoline engine. As a result, diesel engines go farther on a gallon of fuel than a gasoline motor. The disadvantage of diesels, at least until Volkswagen and other automobile makers began civilising them in the 1970s, was that they tended to be louder and smellier than gasoline engines, and they vibrated more, making the cars less comfortable to drive. In addition, the diesel combustion process produces more torque and places more strain on the moving parts inside an engine. The components of a diesel engine have to take the punishment, which means they are also heavier. All of these problems needed to be solved in order to make diesel practical for passenger cars. …

A crack team of microbiologists and engineers spend their days inside Dyson’s RDD analysing the contents of purifier filters and decoding the submicroscopic secrets of the air in our homes

Image for post
Image for post
One of Dyson’s air purifier testing labs in Malaysia | Photography Bryan Van Der Beek ©Dyson

We all know that our homes can reveal a lot about the people who live in them and their unique lifestyles — from the photos on the walls to the food in the fridge, down to the toiletries in our bathrooms, a quick snoop around tells you a great deal about the inhabitants of a house.

But what we might not know is that the air around us can also tell its own tales about our lives. The bacteria that you bring in from the street on your shoes, the tiny fibres from your furniture, the volatile gases given off by your deodorant — particles many times smaller than the size of a human hair can create a detailed picture of an environment, and it’s the job of an elite team of “air pollution detectives” to piece that story together and better understand how pollution can spread around a home. …

Dyson engineers have added an altimeter to their smart new V10 electric motor meaning it can tell if it’s being used at sea-level or in the mountains. But why?

Image for post
Image for post
What happens when you cross a baromotor with an electric motor? | Illustration Vasava Studio ©Dyson

Increasingly, “smart” devices seem to be adding voguish technologies like voice assistants, artificial intelligence, and augmented reality. Fewer companies, however, would consider the benefit of adding barometers, a now over 350-year-old piece of technology, to a product that cost millions to research and develop.

Fewer companies still would consider attaching this ancient technology to a vacuum cleaner. Nevertheless, this is exactly what Dyson has done with its latest cleaning product and, what’s more, they say the addition is going to be “game-changing”.

Barometers probably bring to mind images of antique wall ornaments with ornately painted faces offering whimsical meteorological advice like: “bring a brolly”. …

How the European Space Agency’s new Sentinel satellite is helping to keep planet Earth’s air pollution in check

Image for post
Image for post

Last year, between August and September you contributed to all the pollution recorded. If you were in a car, bus or train with a combustion engine — in fact, if you did virtually anything using electricity you produced nitrogen dioxide, a nasty-smelling, gaseous pollutant. In cities, almost all of it comes from vehicle exhausts. But it can also be produced by power plants, factories and anything else that burns things.

With people increasingly worried about the impact of burning fossil fuels, the scientific community is investing more money into studying its effects. One experiment is the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 5P environmental monitoring satellite. Using state-of-the-art photo-optic equipment it can create images of real-time NO2 pollution anywhere on the planet. …

Air-borne particles from the compromised Soviet Reactor 4 have significantly undermined air quality and life expectancy across Europe, making the disaster in Ukraine the largest air pollution disaster in modern history.

Image for post
Image for post
Relief workers donning their protective breathing apparatus | Photograph © HBO

Chances are you’re now up to date on HBO’s Chernobyl (incidentally IMDB’s highest-rated show of all time). Detailing the fallout from the 1986 explosion of reactor number four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat in what was the Ukrainian SSR, the show offers a bleak and apocalyptic insight into the raw power of nuclear energy and its devastating and unprecedented impact on the lives of those called upon to help contain the disaster. From firefighters being broken down at a cellular level to villages full of infected dogs being exterminated, it’s grim viewing, to say the least. …

Dyson on: why “industrial invention” is more important than the lightbulb moment…

Image for post
Image for post
A prototype robotic vacuum | Photography © Dyson

Burned toast and the see-through toaster. That’s the image that springs to mind for most people they picture an ‘invention’. It’s usually a gizmo or gadget cooked up in garden sheds or Silicon Valley garages by messy haired oddballs.

Between the 18th and 20th centuries this “clutter-bug inventor” mythology was well-deserved.

On the day Albert Einstein died, a Time magazine photographer, Ralph Morse, snuck into the physicist’s office in Princeton, New Jersey. His famous picture shows the desk of one of history’s greatest minds — and it’s a complete and utter mess. While he was still alive, Einstein was even quoted as saying: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?” …

Dyson on: why “industrial invention” is more important than the lightbulb moment…

Image for post
Image for post
A prototype robotic vacuum | Photography © Dyson

Burned toast and the see-through toaster. That’s the image that springs to mind for most people they picture an ‘invention’. It’s usually a gizmo or gadget cooked up in garden sheds or Silicon Valley garages by messy haired oddballs.

Between the 18th and 20th centuries this “clutter-bug inventor” mythology was well-deserved.

On the day Albert Einstein died, a Time magazine photographer, Ralph Morse, snuck into the physicist’s office in Princeton, New Jersey. His famous picture shows the desk of one of history’s greatest minds — and it’s a complete and utter mess. While he was still alive, Einstein was even quoted as saying: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?” …

About

Dyson on:

Dyson’s quarterly publication about design, engineering and technology. Follow us @dyson_on to see what makes us tick.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store