Dog Helps to Monitor Air Pollution

By Sheila Pell, September 2020
Pollution monitoring team of teen and his dog

A boy and his dog are out to show that air pollution can be a lot worse closer to the ground—specifically, right around the height of a toddler or a stroller (and of many dogs). Surprisingly, that’s not the zone where air pollution is monitored in the UK, which has some of the highest asthma rates in Europe. There, the monitors, mounted on lampposts or signs, are nearly five feet off the ground.

Tom Hunt, a teenager from Chesham, wants to change all that. And what better way to bring attention to the problem than by hitting the streets with a portable air monitor strapped to his Labrador Retriever’s collar? Bagheera—Baggy for short—is the perfect height to test the air a child would breathe. And with her glossy black coat and dedication to the task, she’s turning heads even in Parliament

The team collected evidence by walking the streets of Chesham, a commuter town about 30 miles northwest of central London. Disturbingly, the results revealed that Baggy had been exposed to levels of air pollution two-thirds higher than amounts detected by lamppost monitors.

Air pollution weakens the lungs, especially in growing children, setting the stage for chronic disease. Studies have found nitrogen dioxide, which reacts with sunlight to create smog, is worse at child-breathing height. And the bad news about bad air has a new twist: studies have shown a correlation between higher levels of air pollution and the spread and severity of Covid-19 cases. And according to a study of healthy dogs and children, it’s also hazardous to pets, causing neuroinflammation.

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Armed with the evidence Baggy obtained, Tom is asking the UK government to start monitoring air pollution at child level. Also, part of the campaign is an effort to raise the height of strollers and make sure they face away from auto exhaust.

Bad air doesn’t end at the street, and neither do Tom’s efforts. In a new book on the subject, he’s taken on indoor air pollution, a problem that arises from the use of fireplaces and a whole gamut of everyday products that offgas, such as furniture and aerosols. Since dogs share our homes as well as our walks, it’s a survival guide for them, too.