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A Future with a filter

Lucinda Jennings, Emilie Kirketerp Jensen and Elise Harrington report.

Spotswood Primary is one of the schools participating in Breathe Melbourne, a citizen science project designed to measure children's exposure to air pollution on their commute to school. Photo by Lucinda Jennings.

Breathe Melbourne is giving school kids the opportunity to contribute to a sustainable future, giving them

backpacks that detect surrounding air quality.

“It’s often difficult to detect poor air pollution, you may not smell bad air, you may not see bad air and that is because the most damaging particles to health are the really tiny ones” said Professor Lou Irving, Director of Respiratory and Sleep Medicine, and of Clinical Training at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

“It’s likely that we don’t know the full extent of the impacts of poor air quality in Melbourne. There is a lot of knowledge about the adverse effects of poor air quality on health, but almost all of that data has come from overseas, from places where it is known where the air quality is poor,” said Professor Irving.

Deakin University has partnered up with appliance manufacturer Dyson to collect air quality data. Portable air sensors fitted in backpacks take regular measurements of air quality indicators, providing the research team with data on local conditions. By giving primary school aged children these backpacks, the air quality on their regular route to school can be tested.

“A project like Breathe Melbourne gives very good data because they are looking at different walking routes to get to school and their getting data as to whether walking along a busy road compared to walking backstreets is better,” said Professor Irving.

Jackie Green, Principal of Spotswood Primary School, said the project is an exciting time for the kids, who are being called “active citizens”.

Jackie Green, Principal of Spotswood Primary. Photo by Lucinda Jennings

“I think we’re really hoping that the kids get an understanding of what it's like to be a scientist,” said Miss Green.

“They're going to learn about analysing that data and then they're going to be workshopping and coming up with solutions.”

Professor Irving suggests that an action as simple as turning your car off outside a school rather than idle can be extremely beneficial for air quality.

“In Melbourne, the inner west, have got the issues of increased pollution predominantly related to trucks because they go from the depots and take containers to the docks,” said Professor Irving.

Located so close to the West Gate Bridge and industrial works, Spotswood Primary School is exposed to some of Melbourne’s worst quality air.

Melbourne Road traffic, Spotswood. Photo by Lucinda Jennings

“You’ve got this hotspot of poor air quality in the inner west whereas if you measure air quality in the Yarra Valley, it is almost pristine” said Professor Irving. “With this Breathe Melbourne research, it should be able to show children that you can, by avoiding heavy traffic pollution, with the route you take and the time you go walking.”

“It's such an amazing community and a really great place to live, there’s a lot of really wonderful things about this area, but it's really important that the air quality matches the needs of our community,” said Miss Green.

“It would be lovely to [take part] again in a few years to see if some of the measures have made an impact. I think with a lot of the traffic management that's happening with the tunnel projects we might see a change in the future.”

Melbourne school kids are the latest to join the ranks of citizen science - all in the name of a cleaner commute to school.


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