Researchers use city pigeons to study air pollution

(Credit: Jans Canon/Flickr)

Air pollution is one of the greatest threats to humans, caused by humans, today. The public is increasingly aware of the health and economic costs of air pollution, which has a disproportionate impact on the world’s poor.

But efforts to combat the pollution problem have yet to outpace the speed at which we’re polluting the atmosphere, and the attention this had received in the media is reinvigorating efforts to tackle air pollution in innovative ways – like researchers who recently found they could predict levels of lead and other pollutants with pigeons.

The study, published Monday in the journal Chemosphere, found a link between elevated lead levels in children and pigeons in the same Manhattan neighborhoods. According to the authors, pigeons could be used to help detect lead contamination as well as other air pollutants in areas across the country, particularly urban regions.

“There’s a potential to be able to circumvent health problems in humans before they even begin,” said Rebecca Calisi, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor at the University of California, Davis, in an interview with the New York Times.

Pigeons are ideal for making comparisons with human health, she explained, because they live in such close proximity to people and eat much of the same food. They also tend to spend their entire lives within the same square mile, unlike many other birds.

The researchers in Calisi’s California lab intend to use pigeons to monitor other heavy metals, as well as pesticides and fire retardants, in urban areas around the world.

Calisi’s study isn’t the first to use pigeons to monitor air quality. In March, French tech firm Plume Labs launched a flock of 10 air-pollution monitoring pigeons into the skies of London. The birds, wearing GPS devices and a sensor to measure levels of nitrogen dioxide, took real-time measurements of air-pollution levels.

“There’s something about taking what is seen as a flying rat and reversing that into something quite positive,” said Pierre Duquesnoy, creative director at marketing agency DigitasLBI, which won a London Design Festival award for the idea last year.

Due to, in part, the success of the Pigeon Air Patrol, Plume Labs recruited 100 volunteers in London who will wear a prototype of the firm’s air pollution-monitoring sensor for several weeks this fall. This experiment intends to help people track pollution in their area, understand its impact on health and show how they can reduce the risks of pollution-related illness.

Despite the ingenuity and success of the pigeon projects, most pollution experts say the solution is to use cleaner energy sources. On a global scale, it may take years to see such changes, but recent analyses indicate that making the switch to wind, solar and other energies may not be as difficult or expensive as once thought. Indeed, a recent report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) found that just a 7 percent increase in global energy investment ($4.7 trillion) could cut air pollution-related deaths in half by 2040.

“This is completely peanuts. With a 7 percent increase you can save over 3 million lives,” IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol told reporters in London.

There is more pressure than ever for governments and policymakers to make changes that reduce our negative impact on the environment. Air pollution is now the fourth largest threat to human health – only behind high blood pressure, dietary risks and smoking – contributing to around 6.5 million deaths annually.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com