A new report by the International Energy Agency highlights the importance of slashing pollution levels. The report estimates that 6.5 million deaths are linked to air pollution each year, with the number set to increase significantly in coming decades. Faced with these startling figures, designer Kasia Molga has developed the “Human Sensor”, a line of high-tech, origami-like clothing that changes color in response to the amount of pollution in the air. The UK-based artist, who is working in collaboration with Invisible Dust, an organization that works with artists and scientists exploring the themes of climate change and pollution, explains how a severe asthma attack led her to create the wearable tech.

What led you to develop the Human Sensor?

I’m a media artist. I make art works that incorporate cutting edge technology. I also suffer from asthma and sometimes an attack is triggered by the polluted air where I live in London, UK.

I realized that as an asthma sufferer I am way more sensitive to air quality than other people. I turned this into a positive — the beginning of the idea for the Human Sensor. My body’s sensitivity works as an environmental indicator. I have a special ability to detect airborne compounds and chemicals that are bad for us much faster than "healthy" people. Breathing, of course, is the connection between our inner bodies and the outside. The scary thing is that we cannot see what we inhale but we have no choice but to breathe. The government’s own data shows air pollution causes 40,000 to 50,000 early deaths a year in the UK.

I decided to develop a device to show me when and where the levels of air pollutants are dangerously high. The Human Sensor works at the intersection of art, technology, design and science.

My aim is to empower people to get involved with the very real problems of air pollution, and to put pressure on governments and policymakers for more accessible information, and new solutions. We need to ensure that the air we are breathing will not harm us.

Is this only a design project or does it actually help the environment?

When a piece of metal glows red hot we instinctively know not to touch it; we can see it is hot. However, there is nothing to indicate when the air is poisonous. The polluting particles are so small we can’t see them but they are extremely harmful. The smart clothing I have developed together with scientist Frank Kelly, professor of environmental health, Kings College London, is designed to let people know when the air is toxic so they can move to a less polluted area. The knock on effect will be public awareness of air quality, which, in turn, will lead politicians to act. At the moment the problem is hidden.

How does the Human Sensor work?

The display is activated by the wearer breathing through sensors that detect the temperature changes in inhaled and exhaled breaths. The result is that LED lights embedded in the wearable react (fade in and out) to the respiratory rhythm, making the ephemeral and intimate act of breathing visible. The raspberry Pi embedded in the wearable is a hub for the air quality data. I am collaborating with scientists from King’s College London and we decided that we would use expensive and very accurate sensors to read and then stream the data of particulate matter (PM 2.5).

The data dictates what is happening with the display on the wearable, so if there is an increase in PM 2.5 levels, the color of the LED lights change. Clean air shows up white or blue, but with high levels of PM 2.5 almost all lights turn red. The pollution levels rise and the number of flashing red spots goes up, all the time reacting to the respiratory rhythm. This data from the wearable is transmitted in real time to a specially designed website.

How can this wearable help protect against air pollution?

The smart clothing’s ability to show adverse air conditions makes it a useful indicator to leave the area.

In time, I hope people will have an increased awareness of the air we breathe — what we are ingesting daily, how it affects our bodies and our health, and how we can change our behavior to ensure that clean air is available to everyone.  We might start considering our bodies as health monitors with the help of everyday ‘smart’ clothing.

What has been the public’s reaction to your program?

There is a lot of ignorance around the subject of air pollution but as soon as people know they are breathing invisible toxins, they become quite shocked especially as it is known that these pollutants cause early deaths.

Do you plan to launch this device to market?

Ultimately, yes. The current design is a prototype created to promote the idea and also for a performance during Manchester’s Science Festival where it is being launched in the UK. I plan to continue developing the idea because so many people have told me they want to avoid the worst pollution in our cities. At this point I’m not able to say when a version will be available for people to buy but I’m working on it.

-Daniel Casillas