On an average day in 1998, statistician David Fairley was walking up a busy San Francisco street to pick up his son from preschool. Traffic was heavy, and halfway to the school, he started to feel weak and dazed.
“Actually, a homeless guy saw me and helped me to the school,” Fairley said. “[People at the school] had me lie down for a bit.”
Fairley felt better after a rest, but the school administrators insisted he go to the hospital. On the way there, he had a heart attack.
Years earlier, as a newcomer to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, Fairley had been asked to vet new research that correlated exposure to particulate matter and increased mortality rates—particularly deaths related to cardiovascular and respiratory incidents. At the time, all of the available science had been conducted by one researcher in London.
“I thought, the Bay Area isn’t like London at all; it’s much colder and wetter there, and people there might already have respiratory issues,” Fairley said. “And honestly I set out thinking, I’m gonna prove this guy is wrong.” Fairley repeated the study in California’s Santa Clara County and, to his amazement, his results were almost exactly the same as the London researcher’s.
Since that time, several other studies have replicated Fairley’s results, including a long-term American Cancer Society study. There is now conclusive evidence that correlates particulate matter levels and daily mortality rates. Shortly after his heart attack, Fairley also uncovered studies that linked exposure to ultrafine particulate matter—the sort you get next to a busy street with a lot of traffic— and a coronary episode within one to two hours.
“Even though there were, of course, other factors, I believe walking up that street might well have contributed [to my heart attack],” he said. “Ultrafine particles are so small that they’re fairly unstable. They don’t stick around. They agglomerate into bigger particles or else diffuse out. If you look at the gradient from roads, concentrations of ultrafine particles are really a lot higher on a busy street. So it really could make a difference to move one or two streets over.”
Nonetheless, Fairley continued to walk the same busy route between his home, work, and his kid’s school for years. “It finally dawned on me after several years that I really should shift my route to less busy streets, so I did,” he said.
Did you catch that?
Even as an expert in particulate matter who had experienced its impact first-hand, it took Fairley years to adjust his routine according to the information he had. That is a fundamental issue when it comes to myriad decisions affecting both health and the environment in cities around the world. It’s not necessarily enough to have all the information we need to make good choices; rather, we need to have the right information in the precise moment in which we are making a decision.
Wearables—wristbands, watches, clothing, or in some cases, pollution masks with built-in wireless sensors—may be part of the solution. Capable of unobtrusively collecting all sorts of data on the street, comparing them with historical data from government, academic, and other sources, and pushing information to the user at relevant times, this new generation of gadgets promises to provide more current, actionable information than laptops or even smart phones.