Inventor David Kuller is out to fix the most basic -- and, he says, most flawed -- of human actions.
"Very few people, outside of those studying yoga, are concerned with their breath," Kuller said. "But there's so much we can learn from the breath about our body. I think there's a movement of people learning how to breathe better, and we want to be at the pilot of that."
The Obama administration agrees and has laid down a hefty bet that Kuller can help people breathe smarter. U.S. EPA and the Department of Health and Human Services handed Kuller a $100,000 check for his wearable breath monitor -- a first-prize winner in the My Air, My Health Challenge.
Kuller, 54, and his partners, Gabrielle Savage Dockterman and Dot Kelly, created a lightweight vest whose sensors and monitors track your every breath and heartbeat -- and measure all that fine soot and dust you take in.
That last feature has EPA all agog. The Conscious Clothing A-Ware system, the agency hopes, just might revolutionize air pollution monitoring.
The vest might bring pollution monitoring to the human level -- beyond monitoring equipment EPA now has posted around the country. With enough personal, mobile monitors, it would be possible to track airborne pollution down to the city block, building or room.
And when those data are combined with measurements of users' breath volume and heart rate, federal officials say, the link between air quality and human health can become more explicit in real time.
"With people wearing these new data-collecting devices, researchers will be able to see and understand the relationships between varying levels of chemical exposures and individual health responses -- in real time," said Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences at the National Institutes of Health. "This is a big step forward toward treating and, more importantly, preventing disease and illness."
To be sure, the device is not the first personal air monitor. University of California, San Diego, researchers developed the CitiSense monitoring system to measure ozone, nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide. After a 30-person trial in San Diego in 2012, researchers reported much more precise pollution data than what the 10 EPA pollution monitors in the city recorded, along with more specific findings about where and when pollutants could spike.
The Conscious Clothing team says it can go a step beyond. It'll not only track pollution but train people on how to avoid breathing filthy air. So you'd learn to hold your breath when airborne soot and dust -- particulates, in regulatory-speak -- spike or simply take a different route from a known pollution hot spot.
"Whether it's athletes, doctors or regular people, everyone we talk to is concerned about respiratory problems," Kelly said. "Measuring the physiology in real time can tell us so much more."
Question from a 5-year-old
In accepting the cash prize at a Health Datapalooza conference in Washington, D.C., this week, Kuller opened by joking that he's not Tony Stark, the alias of Marvel Comics superhero Iron Man.
But when he opened his shirt to show the contraption strapped to his chest -- a device whose lights blinked red and green with every breath -- it was hard not to see the comparison to Stark, who put a glowing magnet on his chest.
Kuller calls himself an inventor and has had his hands in everything from 3-D graphics to car design software to speakers. He currently works for Aux, a speaker company and his first foray into consumer products. He lives in Milan, Italy, with his wife, who is Italian, and it was there that a prompt from his then-5-year-old daughter got him thinking about air quality.
"She said to me, 'Every time we come back to Milan, I just dig my feet into the floor because of the pollution. It's so noisy and the air stinks. Can you make less air pollution and less noise in Milan?'" Kuller said.
That got Kuller thinking about pollution problems. It drove him to research how everything from architecture to street cleaning could affect air quality in Milan.
But his quest stalled until last year. He reconnected then with Dockterman, a 1980s co-worker at a technology firm.
Dockterman, who runs the Angel Devil video production company, and Kelly, a vice president at the design firm Shearwater Design who had done environmental work in the past, had heard about the My Air, My Health Challenge through the website Innocentive.
They only started working on the project eight days before the deadline for submissions in June but ended up being selected as one of four finalists for the prize. Other projects picked as finalists: a system to link heart rate variability to carbon monoxide and fine particulate matter; infrastructure that ties together modular air sensors, audio-based breath measurements, breathing games and biomarkers to share health information; and a plan to link exposure to fine particulates with flare-ups of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
With $15,000 in seed money and a multiday stay at EPA's Research Triangle, N.C., lab, where they could interact with agency officials and research scientists, they set to work on the Conscious Clothing device.
The monitor sits lightly on the chest, in contrast to the "barbaric, archaic, invasive and uncomfortable" breath monitors currently available, Kuller said. Two blinking lights track breathing, while a dust monitor sits above the shoulder to track how much fine particulate matter the wearer is absorbing.
Fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5, has been linked to respiratory and heart problems, including asthma and decreased lung function.
One of the most original pieces of the device is the thin strips of threaded silver material that wrap around the torso. The material comes from a Minnesota knitting factory owned by Kuller's family.
The factory started threading silver for a project for the technology conglomerate 3M Co. that ended up finding more use as an anti-theft tool, used in hospitals to protect newborn babies.
The Conscious Clothing team says the material can pick up far more physiological detail than bulkier heart rate and breath monitors. Not only can it measure the small reverberations of a heartbeat, it can even register the body's response to a truck rumbling by.
With the $100,000 prize in hand, the team is now planning to tweak the vest for broader use.
There are design challenges to reduce the exposed wires and electronics that might make the wearer look like a suicide bomber. The team said it scrapped plans to videotape a test in Boston that was scheduled for the week after the marathon bombing.
A new system could also integrate a GPS monitor, allowing users to track their breathing and air data on a map to discover what effect location and elevation have.
And more air quality monitors could be added as needed, measuring other particulates, smog, ozone and other pollution.
Already, the team says it's making interesting discoveries. Cigarette smoke, for example, sends particulates off the chart, much more so than a passing clean diesel truck, Kuller said, based on his testing in Milan.
In the hands of an environmental scientist or regulatory agency, those data could mean better management of air pollution. For a physician, having data from individuals on the impacts of pollution can mean better treatment of respiratory diseases linked to dirty air.
But Kuller, who studies yoga, says that they're also interested in how breathing affects the body -- and how humans can better use their lungs.
The team has talked to athletes and coaches, who say that better data on the lungs could unlock new potential in athletic performance.
"Your breathing patterns are really indicative to how your body works," Kuller said. "We're quite convinced there's a lot to be learned from these patterns in terms of measuring health and stress.
"We've solved the problem of being noninvasive and having greater precision," he continued. "Now, in the hands of someone doing serious study, having breath-by-breath data will be everything."
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