Photo: Frederik De Swaef / Instagram

How 20,000 citizen scientists are sniffing out their air pollution problem

For the last month citizen scientists have been monitoring air quality at 20,000 locations in Flanders, Belgium, looking to build an unprecedented picture of the air pollution problem in their small corner of western Europe.

The Curieuze Neuzen (literally: ‘Curious noses’) project, which claims to be “the biggest citizens’ investigation into air pollution ever” is an initiative of the Flemish Environment Agency, the University of Antwerp and de Standaard newspaper.

The three organisations have combined efforts and delivered 20,000 low-cost air quality monitoring devices to houses, schools and business across the Flemish region of northern Belgium.

The project, which was launched with the support of a number of well known Flemish personalities and has attracted much interest with its for-sale style signs stuck to houses across Flanders, originally attracted almost 50,000 applications. This list was then whittled down to provide the best possible geographic scope.

TV and radio presented Sien Wynants appeared in a promotional video saying that she sees healthy air as a foundation for living a healthy life. She added:

“Now I’m pregnant I dream of walking with the baby in the park near my house.”

Wynants says that she always considered it healthy to go for a walk, but with three motorways surrounding her local park, she now questions how healthy it really is.

Filip Meysman from the University of Antwerp told De Standaard: “The 20,000 monitoring stations are spread across Flanders. Measurements will be taken in every town. Everyone in Flanders will have a monitoring station within 250 meters of their front door. We chose the locations using an algorithm that took account of striking a balance between city and countryside.

Participants received their monitoring equipment last month. The simple packs contain a fold-out sign to be attached to a first-floor street-facing window. Inside the sign is space for two test tubes that sample the air and measure nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

NO2 pollution is linked to dirty diesel cars, but it is also pumped into the air by heavy industry, coal-fired power plants and from the burning of other fossil fuels.

Last week the EU sent Germany, the UK and France to the ECJ for their failure to cut NO2 pollution.

At the end of the monitoring period on Saturday, the citizen scientists will return their test tubes to the lab, where they will be analysed. Initial results should be ready in September with a full report following in October.

October will also see mayoral elections held across Belgium, with air quality increasingly being seen as an important issue by voters in urban areas.

The entire project has cost €880,000, which works out as €44 per monitoring station. Money has been raised by the project partners but also by donations from the general public. Citizen scientists also each contributed €10 to take part in the project.

Social media users have been quick to show off their €10 investment.

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Find out more about the project in English and Dutch on the Curieuze Neuzen website.