Air pollution was responsible for as many as 6.5 million deaths worldwide in 2015—as a result of diseases such as heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, and COPD—according to a study by The Lancet Commission on Public Health. The same study found that even in the U.S., more than 150,000 deaths that year could be attributed to pollutants in the air.
But despite this reality, it’s hard to really grasp how the air we breathe is personally impacting our personal health. That fact inspired researchers at Berkeley Earth, a non-profit group of scientists that use big data analysis to better understand climate change, to come up with a better way to compare the dangers in our air with health hazards we can understand. So they produced a paper that found that air pollution has a total impact as harmful to human health as cigarettes.
The data, which shows the number of cigarettes you would have to smoke to equal the danger of the polluted air you breathe, recently inspired two app developers to create a service called, “S**t! I Smoke!” that allows you a real-time look at just how bad the air pollution around you really is.
“I think people know there are a lot problems with air pollution but they don’t know how bad it is. When you bring scientific terms to something so well known as a cigarette number it helps to raise awareness and to bring discussion,” says Marcelo S. Coelho, a designer who co-founded the app with his developer friend Amaury Martiny.
The science behind the app (the developer and the scientists are not affiliated) was inspired by work Berkeley Earth was doing in China to understand the impacts of climate change there. “Every conversation we started ended up as a discussion of air pollution. Which makes sense— air pollution over there is horrific,” says Elizabeth Muller, the organization’s co-founder and executive director. “As we started getting the numbers, we found that nobody cared. We’d say ‘Air pollution in China is hazardous today’ and they’d say: ‘It’s bad for you. You’re a foreigner. You’re not used to it but we’re accustomed to it. It’s not bad for us.’”
The fact that so many people were underestimating the dangers of air pollution suggested to the scientists that their data needed to be presented in a new way. So they decided to create a calculation which showed that air pollution can have the same risks to health as cigarette smoke. They asked: how many cigarettes would you have to smoke to equal the health hazards of the pollution around you? “That comparison is much more meaningful to people then the talk about death or health impacts. It hits people in way they can understand. I wouldn’t want my kids smoking even one cigarette per day. It’s a different way of looking at things,” she says.
Their instincts were correct. Coelho and Martiny saw the research and were shocked that, as non-smokers, they were still doing damage to their health by simply breathing the air. Their immediate reaction eventually became the name of the app: “S**t! I smoke!” Inspired by their new knowledge, they created a service that works by tapping into an open-source site called waqi.info, which provides real-time air quality indexes from monitoring stations around the world. Combined with Berkeley Earth’s calculation, the app’s users can use their GPS location or type in a city to find the number of cigarettes they would have to smoke to equal the health impacts of the real-time air quality.
The Berkeley Earth team loved the idea. “It’s exciting. Berkeley Earth is a very small organization. We haven’t really been able to get the information out there,” says Muller, who notes that much of their data and analysis is available on their website—including detailed maps that show real-time and historical data on pollution across most parts of the world. “Most people still aren’t aware that air pollution is the environmental catastrophe that it is.”
Coelho says that while he and his co-founder are volunteering their time working on the app in their off-hours, they’re invested in expanding its reach and abilities. There are many parts of the world that don’t have air quality monitors. Coelho, who is from Brazil, says monitoring there is only happening around Sao Paulo. They are hoping to find a partner that would be interested in trading advertising on the app for setting up monitoring stations in areas that are lacking data.
“In Africa we have just something in South Africa and near Morocco. It’s a whole continent and you don’t have data about air quality,” he says. In hopes that it will benefit humanity, the partners are also sharing data by making the app free and open source—the code, he says, is available for anyone to find other uses for. They’re so eager for input and participation, in fact, Coelho hopes that anyone with comments or ideas for how to improve their service will email them at email@example.com.
On a recent day, Beijing residents smoked the equivalent of 7.3 cigarettes. In New York City the residents smoked 1.1, in Chicago it was 2.5, and in Los Angeles the number was 4—just by walking outside and breathing the air. As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its director Scott Pruitt have been attempting to roll back air quality standards, a deeper understanding of how the loss of our already not-so-clean air will impact our health is, just like cigarette smoking, a matter of life and death.