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Feds Launch Air Pollution Sensor Challenge

Contest offers awards for the invention of sensor devices that measure air pollution and a person’s physiological response to air quality.

by / June 7, 2012

Something funky may be in the air. Uncle Sam now wants your help designing technology to find out what it is and the impact it’s having on peoples’ health.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology announced a challenge for inventors to come up with a personal, portable sensor that measures air pollution and what is the physiological response the air quality has on a person.

Called the My Air, My Health Challenge, the contest seeks designs for sensors that can be carried or easily worn that focus on a known or plausible link between air pollution and health, such as heart rate and breathing. Responses should also take into consideration how to make the data collected by sensors available publicly.

“Men, women, children — we’re all different, and our bodies react in different ways to pollution and other harmful toxins in our environment,” said NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum in a statement. “We believe pairing health researchers with technology innovators will help us get the tools we need for a more complete picture of what people are breathing and how it might affect their health.”

Dr. Peter Preuss, chief innovation officer for the EPA’s Office of Research and Development, said new technologies that now allow for the creation of inexpensive and portable sensors were one of the main drivers behind the challenge.

“We are on the cusp of technology development for personal air pollution and biomedical sensors,” Preuss said in an email sent to Government Technology on his behalf from the EPA’s Office of Media Relations.

“HHS and EPA designed this challenge to enable simultaneous measurement of what people are actually breathing — the nose-level exposure — and measurements of how their body is reacting — heart rate, lung function — to those pollutants,” he added.
Four finalists will be selected and each will receive $15,000 to help develop their ideas into working prototypes. Once the prototypes are complete, one finalist will be awarded $100,000 for the sensor that is deemed the most effective solution for integrating usable physiological and air quality data that is meaningful to long-term health outcomes.

Preuss said a judging panel for the challenge hadn’t been established yet, but it will ultimately be made up of scientific experts with appropriate background related to the topic. Those judges will follow the guidance provided by the HHS Office of the General Counsel.

The submission period began on June 6 and runs until Oct. 6. Winners will be announced on Nov. 8. Further information on the challenge, including rules and criteria, can be found on the My Air, My Health Challenge webpage.

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Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.

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