We’re a month or so away from the regular orange and red zone air pollution alerts that we accept as just a fact of life of living in Dallas-Fort Worth. Texas is hot. Cities like Dallas churn out a lot of junk into the air. Sometimes, like last October, the weather and mysterious events can turn DFW’s air into a hazy reminiscent of Beijing. But what do warnings like “orange” and “red” really mean? What is in the air, and what does it mean to walk around breathing it?
Enter a Brazilian-born designer with a simple and ingenious idea of taking a big, abstract issue like air pollution and repackaging the information in a way that really hits home. Marcelo Coelho and Paris-born app developer Amaury Martiny have created S***!, I Smoke!, an app that takes live pollution data from measurement stations around the globe, crunches them through a formula that equates the harmfulness of pollutants in the air to the harmfulness of pollutants you inhale when you smoke a cigarette, and tells you, based on your location, how many equivalent cigarettes you will smoke today just by breathing.
It’s pretty scary stuff.
I downloaded the app yesterday around noon, and according to information gathered from an air quality station at the Dallas Hilton, I smoked the equivalent of 0.4 cigarettes yesterday. That’s not too bad considering that it is still April and the air quality index of 21 registers as “good,” according to the Worldwide Air Quality website. In fact, 0.4 cigarettes a day is about average for the United States. Things are worse in the EU, where residents smoke an average of 1.6 cigarettes a day just by breathing. On a bad day in Beijing, residents breath in pollutants equivalent to smoking about 25 cigarettes a day.
Those kinds of staggering comparisons are what the app’s developers were going for, according to an interview they did with CityLab — offering a new context to illuminate just how dangerous the air in many cities has become.
For both Coelho and Martiny, the app isn’t only a useful tool to inform users about their city’s air quality; it also makes this information more accessible and easier to comprehend. “These air-quality monitoring stations are just numbers, numbers that are very specific to professionals who work in environmental issues,” Martiny said. “So when you make this conversion to cigarettes, it makes it easier to understand what people are dealing with and the consequences air quality has in their daily lives.”
What will it be like in Dallas this summer? I checked the weather station again this morning, and the AQI is up to 56, about double what it was yesterday. When it inevitably hits the red zone this summer, that air quality index will jump to 151-200. The scary thing about all of this is that, unlike cigarettes, everyone breathes in the air, including children and newborns. In other words, we’ve all been smoking for a long time.