Standing in Houston traffic under a smoggy plume and wondering if you should take your asthmatic child to soccer practice? The answer could be in your pocket.
A new app available for iPhones and Android-powered cellphones collects data from dozens of air and wind monitors strategically located throughout the sprawling city and its outlying areas. It provides residents with nearly real-time data on smog conditions in the notoriously polluted city and tracks the direction the plume is headed.
In a city that has not met federal clean air guidelines for years, ozone -- a key component of smog -- is a real issue. Dozens of refineries lining the Houston Ship Channel spew dust, toxins, smoke and chemicals 24 hours a day. Scientists and doctors say that pollution, which contributes to the creation of smog, also exacerbates asthma, chronic bronchitis and other respiratory illnesses.
In the greater Houston area, home to more than 6 million people, more than 523,000 people 65 or older -- or about 8.7 percent of the population -- suffer from asthma. More than 127,000 children -- or about 2 percent -- also are affected by the disease.
"We're trying to give people a tool to plan their day for themselves or their kids if they're at risk with asthma or something else," said Larry Soward, interim director of the Houston Air Alliance told The Associated Press. "Here's what will happen in the next eight hours, so now we can decide if Johnny or Suzy are going to soccer practice after school."
The alliance collaborated with the University of Houston and the American Lung Association to create the app with a grant from the Houston Endowment. It collects data from 44 air monitors installed by state and federal regulators, all of which also have wind-reading instruments. It also gathers data from 30 other wind monitors that help determine the direction the plume will head, said Dan Price, the university researcher who helped oversee construction of the app.
The difference between this app, the only one like it in Texas according to the developers, and others available through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and in some other cities is that the data on the Houston Ozone Map is updated nearly every five minutes, Soward said. Most other websites and apps collect the data and analyze it before it's released, meaning the information is more than an hour old, he added.
"This is fine for regulatory purposes, but not so good for health," Price said. "We breathe air at the moment."
Price acknowledged that using the data real-time does open the door to errors. However, the app uses an algorithm that interpolates the data over the region to help eliminate some of those mistakes, he said. And since the goal of the app is to help provide information to help people decide where to go and when, some mistakes are less important.
"It's not the type of thing that you would say that this is the best science available," Price said. "You would say that this is a visualization of real-time data that allows you to change how you interact with the environment based on the best correlation of that data."
Dr. Amalia Guardolia, a pediatrician at the Spring Branch Medical Center in Houston, said a majority of the children she treats are in populations at higher risk for asthma: low-income, black or Hispanic.
"Some of them don't have access sometimes to the Internet, but they do have access to their phone," she said, noting they could choose to keep their children indoors if the app shows them it will be a "bad" ozone day.