Backpack-Wearing Pigeons Keep Tabs On London's Deadly Air Pollution

Pigeons wearing tiny backpacks are flying around London to monitor air quality. It is arguably the most adorable effort to fight air pollution, and according to the brains behind the project, it will make "the invisible visible" and reveal the deadly extent of the city's air problems.

As the group's website explains, "Who's fighting air pollution? Pigeons. Wearing tiny backpacks with pollution sensors."

Pollution in London is horrible. The BBC reports that around 10,000 people in the city die from the poor air quality every year. EU rules state that NO2 levels at pollution monitoring sites cannot exceed 200 micrograms, more than 18 times for all of 2016, according to the Guardian.

The site at Putney High Street in West London breached that rule in the first week.

It was the fifth year in a row where London broke the pollution limits, and the Supreme Court ordered the U.K. to come up with a plan to fix the problem.

And so the backpack-wearing Pigeon Patrol was born.

The tiny backpacks detect NO2, volatile compounds, and Ozone pollution. While the pigeons fly, they pick up the data and send it to Twitter (because there's no more appropriate social media platform for birds).

Londoners can Tweet their locations to @PigeonAir to look find out what the air is like in their immediate area. People can also go online and view the pigeons flight patterns. The live map is here.

Pierre Duquesnoy and Matt Daniels, from the marketing and technology agency Digitas LBi, submitted the idea to the Twitter's #PoweredbyTweets competition. It won under the category "solve a problem" and was exhibited at the London Design Festival at Somerset House.

Plume Labs designed the little backpacks, and the entrepreneurs are using racing pigeons for their patrol.

So far, the pollution data is pretty bad. According to the Verge, the city fluctuates between moderate and high levels. High levels are defined as being above the World Health Organization's recommended levels. The pigeons have only found "fresh air" in London a small handful of times.

The dire news is already well known to policymakers who have struggled with the dangerous levels for over half a decade. So what's the point of the pigeons? Designer Pierre Duquesnoy told the Guardian, it's about making "the invisible visible."

"Most of the time when we talk about pollution, people think about Beijing or other places, but there are some days in the year when pollution was higher and more toxic in London than Beijing, that's the reality."
He added, "It is a scandal. It is a health and environmental scandal for humans — and pigeons."

The pigeons have a vet on hand to take care of any health problems arising from flying through London's air pollution.

Bloomberg affirmed Duquesnoy assertion, London's center monitoring stations have shown greater concentrations of NO2 than Beijing, which is now famous for people wearing masks while walking through the smog.

According to Simon Birkett, founder of non-profit Clean Air in London, London's hazardous problem is the unintended consequence of climate change policies, which promoted diesel over gasoline to reduce CO2.

"Successive governments knew more than 10 years ago that diesel was producing all these harmful pollutants, but they myopically plowed on with their CO2 agenda. It's been a catastrophe for air pollution, and that's not too strong a word. It's a public-health catastrophe."
NO2 increases the risk of stroke and heart-attack, as well as asthma. London isn't the only European city trying to cope with air pollution, Paris, Rome, Athens, Madrid, Brussels, and Berlin were among the places that breached EU rules, albeit, not as badly as the capital of the U.K.

[Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images]