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"Air of the Anthropocene creates spaces and places for discussion about air pollution," says co-creator Professor Pope.
"Air of the Anthropocene creates spaces and places for discussion about air pollution," says co-creator Professor Pope. Copyright Robin Price
Copyright Robin Price
Copyright Robin Price

Making the invisible visible: Digital light painting reveals air pollution from Wales to India

By Lottie Limb
Published on Updated
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From Port Talbot steelworks to a Delhi playground, the researchers hope their photos will help people see the impact of pollution on their lives.

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We know that air pollution surrounds city-dwellers, but what difference would it make if we could actually see it?

By combining ‘digital light painting’ with air pollution sensors, researchers and artists have found a way to make the invisible visible.

Their photos highlight the health risks of particulate-crowded skies in Wales, India and Ethiopia.

Air pollution is the leading global environmental risk factor,” says Professor Francis Pope, an environmental scientist at the UK’s University of Birmingham, who led the project with artist Robin Price. 

“By painting with light to create impactful images, we provide people with an easy-to-understand way of comparing air pollution in different contexts.”

How can you photograph air pollution?

Prince Street air quality monitoring site, Port Talbot, Wales. PM2.5 was measured at 30-40 micrograms per cubic metre here.
Prince Street air quality monitoring site, Port Talbot, Wales. PM2.5 was measured at 30-40 micrograms per cubic metre here.Robin Price

Particulate matter (PM) is the deadliest form of air pollution for humans. Its key components are sulfates, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride, black carbon, mineral dust and water.

To capture the tiny particles on film, the team got low-cost air pollution sensors to measure PM mass concentrations. They then used the sensors’ real time signal to control a moving LED array programmed to flash more rapidly as PM concentration increased.

An indoor biomass-burning kitchen in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where PM2.5 measured 150-200 micrograms per cubic metre.
An indoor biomass-burning kitchen in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where PM2.5 measured 150-200 micrograms per cubic metre.Robin Price

A long exposure photograph is taken with the artist moving the LED array in front of the camera - the flash becoming a dot on the photograph. 

The artist is not seen in the photo because they are moving, but light flashes from LEDs are seen because they are bright. The more light dots appear in the photographs, the higher the PM concentration.

What did the air pollution photos reveal?

Airport Road, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - where PM2.5 was recorded at 10-20 micrograms per cubic metre.
Airport Road, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - where PM2.5 was recorded at 10-20 micrograms per cubic metre.Robin Price

The researchers’ findings show air pollution varying dramatically between different locations.

In Ethiopia, concentrations of PM2.5 (fine particulate matter) were up to 20 times greater in a kitchen using biomass stoves than they were nearby outdoors.

In India, two children’s playgrounds just 500 kilometres apart were given the digital light painting treatment. The one in urban Delhi has PM2.5 values at least 12.5 times higher than those measured in a play area in rural Palampur. 

IIT nursery playground in Delhi, India. PM2.5 here was recorded at a far higher 500-600 micrograms per cubic metre.
IIT nursery playground in Delhi, India. PM2.5 here was recorded at a far higher 500-600 micrograms per cubic metre.Robin Price

Large variations in air pollution were also captured around the Port Talbot steelworks in Wales. Here, air quality monitoring and light painting at dusk in summer measured PM2.5 concentrations in the range of 30-40 mg/m3, when the hourly average value was 24 mg/m3.

“By providing a visual understanding of air pollution that is accessible to people who don’t necessarily have a scientific background, the light painting approach can demonstrate that managing air pollution levels can have a significant impact on people’s day-to-day lives,” says photographer Price.

How dangerous is air pollution?

Air pollution is considered one of the main threats to both environment and human health and a leading cause of death globally. 

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Particulate matter has multiple impacts upon physical health and is responsible for diseases including heart disease, stroke, and cancers.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 99 per cent of the global population breathe polluted air, causing approximately seven million premature deaths worldwide each year.

A playground at the Institute of Himalayan Biotechnology, in Palampur, India. PM2.5 was 30 - 40 micrograms per cubic metre - significantly lower than in the Delhi playground.
A playground at the Institute of Himalayan Biotechnology, in Palampur, India. PM2.5 was 30 - 40 micrograms per cubic metre - significantly lower than in the Delhi playground.Robin Price

The situation is particularly challenging in Asia, where air pollution remains a major problem in countries like India and China, despite several air quality policies and actions. 

African countries have also experienced significant deterioration in air quality over the last five decades.

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To raise awareness about this deadly issue, the ‘Air of the Anthropocene’ photo project has been exhibited at gallery shows in Los Angeles, Belfast and Birmingham.

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