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As many as seven million people per year die due to polluted air. Can satellites improve the health of city dwellers?

Air pollution causes many premature deaths, and has a negative impact on the economy, and even on biological equilibrium. Thanks to the European Earth observation program Copernicus, we have access to up-to-date information on air quality, which powers a number of tools that make life easier, such as applications for planning physical activity in the city.

According to the World Health Organization, 9 per 10 inhabitants of the Earth breathe polluted air, which causes the deaths of as many as seven million people per year. The European Earth observation project has made it possible to develop the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), which monitors, reports and forecasts air quality. The service can help us minimize the impact of pollution and adapt to the changes that we are witnessing. For example, CAMS uses data generated by Sentinel-5P, the first satellite launched by the European Space Agency (ESA), dedicated to atmosphere monitoring.

Low air quality causes heart diseases, stroke, tumors and digestive conditions. It is the cause of many premature deaths. WHO estimates that air pollution by 2050 will be the biggest threat to the environment that we have ever experienced.

An application for people who exercise in the city

We all know that regular sports activity helps us improve our fitness and stay healthy for years, but for many people, not only those with heart or lung conditions, exercising in the city can be risky when there is a high level of pollution, as cities are where air quality is the worst.

Scientists at the University of Leicester are currently working on a mobile application that uses satellite data to map the level of air pollution in cities. The app not only alerts users to the conditions outside, but also suggests the best possible route for a long walk or run.

“Chronically ill patients, also those suffering from heart and lung conditions, are recommended physical activity, but doctors often have doubts and concerns about which exercises exactly they can recommend,” says Prof. Andre Ng, University of Leicester, UK. “The mobile application on which we are working will focus on the patient. The user will receive individual, accurate exercise recommendations based on their health condition and abilities, additionally taking into account up-to-date satellite data on air quality in a given location. This kind of model can encourage doctors to recommend physical activity more often, and at the same time motivate patients to exercise,” explains Prof. Andre Ng.

The application will use data from the Sentinel-5P satellite, which is equipped with a specialized sensor called Tropomi that detects chemical compounds such as nitrogen oxide, ozone, methane, or carbon monoxide.

Satellites for special missions

“Satellites are currently driving the growth of the space industry, representing two thirds of its total revenue,” says Przemysław Mujta, Technical Sales Manager at CloudFerro, a Polish company that delivers cloud solutions for the European CREODIAS and WEkEO platforms, which share satellite images as part of the Copernicus Earth observation project. “In addition to acquiring high-resolution data, Sentinel-5P can monitor an area as wide as 2,600 km, which enables precise mapping of the entire planet every 24 hours. 5P, which can detect volcanic ash, is also used to monitor active volcanoes,” explains Przemysław Mujta.

As low air quality is the cause of many premature deaths, using tools that can monitor air accurately is more important than ever before. Sentinel-5P will certainly contribute to popularizing the subject of atmosphere pollution, especially because air pollution data is increasingly the object of interest of not only professional researchers but also the public administration and local governments, as well as individuals. For example, it is used by urban planners, who manage urban traffic based on pollution level data to avoid exceeding a specific pollution emissions level. When pollution in the city becomes too high, the local government may decide to close educational facilities for the youngest children. Information on the level of air pollution is also useful to people who exercise outside, because it lets them avoid breathing in harmful substances when the level becomes too high.

According to Copernicus Market Report, the air quality monitoring services market will grow by 4.6 percent annually to reach EUR 430 billion by 2022.