"Before Darby Jack leaves his house in Brooklyn to bike to his office in northern Manhattan, he checks the air in his tires and grabs his keys, wallet and helmet.
Lately, he sometimes takes a lot of other gear, too: a heart rate and respiration tracker, a portable blood pressure cuff, and fancy air monitors that measure pollution, developed by one of his colleagues at Columbia University.
Jack has been doing test rides for a study he and his team from the Mailman School of Public Health and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory are launching with WNYC. The equipment he wears generates a time-stamped record of which roads, bridges and bike paths have greater and lesser amounts of fine particles. These particles are mainly produced by combustion in cars, buildings' heating units, and various industrial settings.
Fine particles, many of which are made up of black carbon, are linked to a wide array of heart, respiratory and other health problems. Using statistical models, city health officials estimate fine particles cause more than 2,000 premature deaths and 6,000 emergency room visits and hospitalizations each year. Most of those are in vulnerable populations: the very young, the very old, and people with conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart disease and hypertension.
But actually measuring fine particles, particularly at the level of specific streets, is tricky. Measuring how many of them get into the lungs is even trickier. And linking that exposure to health outcomes is trickier still."