20 September 2017

Tasmania leads the way on pollen monitoring

Allergies Technology

An app is giving Tasmanians real-time information about environmental factors which may be triggering their allergies.

The smartphone app, called AirRater, taps into a statewide monitoring system to provide up-to-date information on pollen, smoke and temperature levels. Patients can record the symptoms they experience at specific times and locations.

Once enough data is collected, the app runs an algorithm to determine which environmental conditions correlate with the individual’s allergies.

During the two-year project, the feedback from users was “overwhelmingly positive”, project leader Fay Johnston said.

Ms Johnston is a senior research fellow at the Menzies Institute for Medical Research. She worked on the AirRater project in collaboration with the University of Tasmania, CSIRO, the Australian National University and the Tasmanian government.

Smoke from fires contained thousands of chemical species, many of which had adverse health effects, according to an article in the MJA.(1)

“Globally, around 340,000 deaths each year are estimated to be attributable to landscape fire smoke,” the authors wrote. In Sydney, days with an average PM2.5 increase of 35µg/m3 were associated with a 5% increase in mortality or three additional premature deaths.

Some AirRater app users had always thought they were allergic to pollen, but discovered it was the burn-offs that were actually exacerbating their asthma, said Ms Johnston.

Other individuals found the app useful for pinpointing exactly which type of pollen was causing respiratory issues.Tasmania had specific air quality issues related to bushfires, wood heaters and several different sources of pollen.

AirRater had a system of six pollen monitors dotted across the state to detect 25 native and introduced pollen types.

The app was also proving to be a useful tool for epidemiology, despite information being crowd sourced or “dirty” data, Ms Johnston said.

For instance, analysis revealed that birch and pines were also important triggers of asthma. Previously, the focus had been on grass pollen. Researchers also learned that rain briefly reduced pollen levels, but that pollen levels then peaked three to five days after rain. “We are really learning a lot,” Ms Johnston said.

AirRater is now investigating how to build an algorithm to alert health authorities to allergy hotspots.

The AirRater team is also assisting Victoria in creating its real-time pollen monitoring system. The team is working with the University of Melbourne to deploy additional pollen monitors and to train staff.

The Victorian forecast and interim warning system is set to be rolled out in time for the next thunderstorm asthma season, but the details are still under wraps, a spokesperson for Victorian Department of Health & Human Services told The Medical Republic.

1: MJA 2017, 18 September