Making air pollution meaningful

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Dr Ruaraidh Dobson | Programme Manager (Air Quality)

Date: 7 April 2023

4 million deaths are caused by ambient air pollution every year, and that number is growing. Health, wealth and wellbeing are all affected by what’s in the air, making improving air quality a vital issue for anyone concerned with the environment – advocates, leaders and scientists. But how to make a difference in this complex field is a challenging question. At Trilateral, we’re working on Ethical AI solutions to make air pollution meaningful and help make the case for change. 

How can we talk about air pollution? 

Air pollution means lots of different things: different pollutants, different places, different sources, different effects on your health. In most of Europe, the pollutants of most concern are fine particles, coarse particles, sulphur dioxide, ozone and nitrogen dioxide. All of these have different negative effects on health, and all come from different sources – air pollution can be caused by cars and other road traffic, industry, domestic heating (like wood burning stoves) and natural processes, to name a few. 

This can make it difficult to communicate about the importance of good air quality. If you oversimplify you can miss important and meaningful information, but if you make it too complex you run the risk of people tuning out.  

Making complex information understandable 

It’s vital to give the public good information on air pollution. Many different systems have been created to show how good or bad the air is. Air Quality Indices (AQIs) are a common way to balance different pollutants and get an idea of the overall health effects people might experience. These are colour-coded systems with unified messaging systems. For example, in Ireland the Air Quality Index for Health is commonly used, grading air pollution on a scale of one to ten, ‘good’ to ‘very poor’. AQIs take a range of different pollutants, average them out, see which one is worst then use the band from that value – so even if only one pollutant is graded ‘poor’, the AQI will read ‘poor’. 


The Irish Air Quality Index for Health includes numerical indices, colours, general descriptions of air pollution and health advice.  

But AQIs are limited because they fail to show the real impact of air pollution – while the numbering and colouring is useful, and the health advice associated with it is beneficial, it’s unlikely to change behaviour on its own. Are there other ways to show the impact of air pollution and make it more than just a number? 

How does air pollution affect your area? 

In our Trim Air Quality project, we’re using the latest demographic, geographical and disease incidence data to estimate the actual cost of air pollution to communities. We know how different kinds of air pollution create different effects, thanks to years of work in this field by researchers all over the world. Therefore, we can use existing estimates of the health burden caused by air pollution and different diseases to understand local effects.  

For instance, it’s well known that nitrogen dioxide causes children to develop asthma and other respiratory diseases. Using the latest research, we can quantify the expected number of cases in the community, based on locally measured air pollution values from sensors – and how those cases might drop if air pollution levels fell. That takes something complex and invisible and makes it real. 

We can use this as a tool to show people the value of making changes in their everyday lives. That might mean using the car less, taking a different route to work, or using clean heating instead of a woodburning stove. It might also mean activating people to support wider behaviour change measures in their community – introducing “school streets” programmes, clean air zones, or low traffic neighbourhoods. That can have knock-on benefits for other areas of policy, particularly around carbon neutrality. 

Almost everyone knows that air pollution is a health hazard. But the real challenge is communicating just how important it is. By linking it directly to a community’s health and showing how action can make that health better, we intend to make real and lasting change. 

Please get in touch with us if you’re interested in hearing more, or if you’d like to work with us directly on making air pollution data impactful please click here.



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