Andreas Späth

In the fight against air pollution, pigeons beat drones

2016-03-22 12:02

Andreas Wilson-Späth

Pigeons are much maligned everywhere. In many cities they’re considered vermin little better than rats with wings. While there is little doubt that they can be a considerable nuisance to city dwellers, their bad reputation is not entirely deserved, especially considering the fact that, as a species, they have adapted better than most to the harsh urban niches of the Anthropocene.

Last week, a crack squad of London racing pigeons worked hard to clean up their messy public image. How? By raising awareness about the air pollution that envelops the British capital.

For three days, the pigeons patrolled the skies equipped with tiny back-packs carrying pollution sensors and GPS tracking devices. No need for fancy remote controlled drones here.

The “Pigeon Air Control” has, of course, got its own Twitter account. By tweeting the name of their local neighbourhood to @PigeonAir, human Londoners were able to find out what the air pollution situation in their area was.

You can try it out yourself, even if you’re not in London. When I tweeted “Chelsea @PigeonAir” (no, I’m not particularly well versed when it comes the parts of London), I got an instant response telling me that air pollution in #Chelsea was “moderate” at the moment, as well as an ad in the style of a public service announcement featuring a pigeon wearing a gas mask.

The little pollution sensors carried by the pigeons weigh a mere 25g and detect nitrogen dioxide, one of the pollutants emitted by motor vehicles, especially diesel cars and trucks. Cute and gimmicky, but really quite effective.

The people behind the project are planning to expand their coverage by asking London residents to join the pollution monitoring effort by helping to crowdfund a campaign that will allow people on the streets to carry little wearable pollution sensors which will upload air quality information to a live map that will be accessible via an app. All of it in aid of creating greater awareness of the city’s air pollution problem.

The Pigeon Air Patrol may be a bit of a publicity stunt, but the issue it is trying to highlight is very real and very serious. You may have thought that the days of the Big Smoke are long gone, but that’s far from true.

Last year, researchers at King’s College London estimated that the equivalent of about 9 500 Londoners die prematurely every year because of the long-term consequences of breathing the city’s polluted air. That’s twice as many as suggested by previous studies. To put the number into context, apparently smoking-related illnesses kill around 8 400 people in London annually.

Perhaps breathing in the British capital should come with a health warning, just like smoking. And perhaps urban pigeons aren’t such a useless nuisance after all.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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