How hi-tech sensors on buildings, cars and in the sky could help keep Toronto's air clean

High tech "super sniffers" using next-generation sensing technology and high-powered data crunching could help Toronto track down sources of odour and pollution, according to experts at a conference on air quality this week.

Some of the new systems were on display at the third annual Air & Odour Management Conference and Technology Showcase held at Hart House at the University of Toronto.

Recent U of T grad Omid Youssefi is a research and development engineer at Scentroid, a company that specializes in the manufacturing of odour sensing and analysis equipment. He says right now there are only a handful of monitoring stations sniffing Toronto's air. What's more, the air quality monitoring stations are typically large and expensive. 

"We need enough mobile stations that can be mounted on buildings or poles near schools or other locations of interest to measure the air quality and pollution levels in many locations," he said.

Youssefi envisions public-service vehicles, such as police cars, equipped with pollution sensors measuring the quality of the air as they patrol the streets and drones criss-crossing over the city sniffing the atmosphere.

Such a network could provide much-needed real-time data on the toxic cocktail of air pollutants such as carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and ozone. That would help provide a precise forecast about what's in the air we breathe in various areas of the city.

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Youseffi says that kind of information could be used by people in their daily commute, which could help them choose different activities or locations during periods of high pollution.

"Say you are bicycling down the road and you are breathing in lots of air and you want to know what's in the air," he said.

The World Health Organization estimates that air pollution contributes to the deaths of seven million people a year, and according health officials in Toronto, fatalities due to poor air quality number in the hundreds annually. 

Stephanie Gower of Toronto Public Health says bad air quality can be dangerous to vulnerable populations, and typically children and the elderly bear the brunt of the effects.

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"In the city of Toronto, the latest figures we have is that air pollution contributes to 1,300 premature deaths and 3,500 hospitalizations each year," she said. 

She says researchers need more sensors in more places providing data from around the city to find the causes.

"I think of the end of the day, the better the evidence we have the more we have an understanding of what interventions will work the best in terms of improving air quality and improving health," she added.

While factories, waste treatment facilities and traffic gridlock are usually blamed for pollution and nuisance odours, Dr. Ardevan Bakhtari, president of Scentroid, says researchers have found new sources.

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"A lot of people associate the cannabis odour with when it's being consumed. But the growing of cannabis and the extraction of oil has a huge odour that is completely different," Bakhtari said.

"It hasn't been really studied for health effects, but for sure it can have a negative impact on your enjoyment of such things as being outdoors."

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Dr. Marianne Hatzopoulou, a Canada Research Chair in Transportation and Air Quality, says it's important to understand what people are inhaling. But the leader of the Transportation and Air Quality research group at the U of T's Department of Civil & Mineral Engineering says it can't be done without more data.

"We need sensors and instruments that are able to penetrate within what we call urban micro environments into citizens' homes and into very small spaces, so that we can really understand what people are exposed to," she said.