Earth Day: Technology designed to clean air in schools and hospitals trialled in London 'pollution pods'

Londoners have a rare opportunity to sample the “cleanest air in the UK” in an installation that recreates the best and worst polluted places on Earth. 

Constructed by artist Michael Pinsky, the Pollution Pods use technology that strips harmful substances from the air, creating breathable oases in the hearts of otherwise filthy cities.

Developed by Denmark-based company Airlabs, the technology on display in the pods has real-world potential as an antidote to some of the world’s deadliest pollution hotspots. 

Its inventors hope to see it used to purify the air in public spaces, particularly schools, hospitals and other places occupied by vulnerable populations.

A report recently revealed over 95 per cent of the world’s population is exposed to unsafe levels of pollution, leading to health problems ranging from asthma to cardiovascular disease. Pressure to find solutions to the air pollution crisis is growing.

“I co-founded Airlabs around three year ago when I was pregnant with my first son – as any first time mother does you research all the ways you can be as healthy as possible for your baby,” explained Sophie Power, the company’s CEO.

“I realised I was walking down Marylebone Road to work every single day for work and incurring huge amounts of air pollution, which was having a huge effect on my unborn baby’s lungs. 

“I also realised there was no technology that could protect me from this.” 

The Pollution Pods consist of five geodesic domes that emulate conditions in some of the world’s most polluted cities and one – modelled after a remote Norwegian peninsula called Tautra – that uses Airlabs’ ground-breaking technology.

“We have removed all pollution from the air in that dome – the nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter, volatile organic compounds and ozone – so when you walk into that pod, you’re breathing the cleanest air you’re going to breath in the UK and most of Europe,” explained Ms Power.

The Tautra pod gives a taste of the spaces that the atmospheric chemists working at Airlabs want to see installed in the world's most polluted cities.

Using nano carbon filters and airflow engineering, the scientists behind the technology can create zones in which pollution is virtually non-existant.

Devices have already been developed to use in cars and at bus shelters, and now they are hoping to apply them in larger zones in New Delhi.

While such measures have an immediate appeal amidst constant horror stories about air pollution, scientists have warned against over reliance on grand gestures or radical interventions to “fix” air pollution. 

Air purification towers the size of high-rise buildings are being constructed in some of China’s worst polluted regions, but experts say such ideas should be approached with scepticism.

“Everybody really wants technology to fix a problem so that nobody has to adjust their lifestyle, but I think the history of technological fixes has generally been very disappointing,” said Dr Ian Mudway, a respiratory toxicologist at King’s College London.

However, Dr Mudway noted there could be a role for localised, indoor air purification – particularly in spaces occupied by vulnerable populations. 

“The reality is to change policy and reduce traffic emission is going to take a long time – maybe a generation, and what do you do in the interim?” he asked.

“You could do something that purified the air in the building to ensure that for children or indeed old people there was clean air being pumped into those buildings where there are vulnerable, sensitive populations.”

Installed in the courtyard of Somerset House to coincide with Earth Day, the pods are meant to not only raise awareness of the air pollution crisis on Britain’s doorstep, but also make people consider the effect it is having around the world.

Besides the Norway pod, the domes recreate conditions in New Delhi, Beijing, Sao Paulo and London.

The diversity of experiences, from the dense smog and heat of New Delhi to the vinegar tang of Sao Paulo – mimicking the effects of ethanol-based fuel fumes prevalent in the Brazilian metropolis – reveal the unique air pollution problems each city faces. 

“Somewhere like Delhi, up to 80 per cent of children have impaired lung function, which is a horror story, and globally 17 million babies under one are exposed to air pollution six times the World Health Organisation limits,” said Ms Power.

“Ninety per cent of the premature deaths and sickness is occurring in low to middle income countries, so getting people to just think a bit more about the global ramifications is important,” said Dr Mudway.

“People in the West contribute to air pollution in places like new Delhi and Beijing because it’s our consumerism in the West that is contributing to their poor air quality.”

The pods recreate the smells and sights of polluted cities without using toxic chemicals. Despite this, the installation was almost not given the go-ahead due to safety concerns – an irony noted by Ms Power.

“There’s been a lot of health and safety checks for the Pollution Pods – recreating pollution and having something people walk through is very regulated,” she said, noting the contrast with the relative lack of regulation on pollutants in their host city.

“What isn’t regulated is the pollution we are breathing in our everyday lives.”

The government’s current plan to tackle air pollution has been declared unlawful in a High Court ruling, and nitrogen dioxide levels are still dangerously high in 37 of the 43 air quality zones across the country.

For the eighth year running, parts of London broke the annual legal air pollution limit within the first month.

Though they hope their devices can provide relief from the worst effects of air pollution, the team at Airlabs is aware they are not a silver bullet. Ultimately, urgent action from government is imperative to regulate the deadly pollution that has enveloped much of the UK.

In a further irony, Ms Power noted that pods were not necessary for Britons to get a taste of pollution in cities far away.

“If you want to breathe Delhi air for particles, you can go down to the Northern line or the Victoria line,” said Ms Power. “It’s very similar air quality.”

More information is available here.

Antonio Cianci