London: AirTEXT, a public health advice programme

The Organisation

airTEXT is a consortium of the 33 local authorities that make up Greater London in partnership with regional & national government – the Greater London Authority, the Environment Agency and Public Health England (formerly the UK’s Health Protection Agency).

The Challenge

London is often affected by peaks in air pollution. While air pollution and health advice was widely available, it was passively and not actively disseminated. The consortium wanted to become pro-active in informing vulnerable people about air quality, allowing them to take effective prevention measures and self-manage their symptoms. It was expected that this would improve the patients’ quality of life and address health inequalities, while reducing costs incurred by the National Health Service.

The Satellite Solution

airTEXT is an air quality information service based on satellite data, available to people vulnerable to air pollution (or those with general interest) who subscribe to it. Automated airTEXT alerts are triggered on days of elevated air pollution and sent daily to subscribers via text, voice message, or email. The service was launched across London in 2007 and since October 2010 has also been available on Twitter and social media with a smartphone application introduced prior to the 2012 Olympic & Paralympic Games.

Alerts across London inform subscribers of the air pollution levels expected (moderate/high/very high) with alerts for UV index, pollen and temperature information also becoming available to service users in 2012.

With the alerts there is a description of the likely symptoms and advice on how to handle them is also provided. The range of new environmental alerts for UV, pollen and temperature have been of particular interest to health care providers, with cold weather forecasts and alerts, targeted at sufferers of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) having been trialled in Islington (north London) in 2013/13 and with discussions now underway with health care and emergency planners on the wider use of cold alerts in London and in developing heat-wave alerts too.

The project has been implemented by the airTEXT consortium initially under the ESA PROMOTE programme, then as part of the 7th framework EU project PASODOBLE, and more recently within the INTERREG IVB project ‘JOAQUIN’.

The Results

airTEXT research by the University of Brighton illustrated that 68% of those with a medical condition would alter their behaviour in response to receiving an airTEXT alert message. Survey participants were asked what action they took in response to an air pollution alert. Increased preparedness was overall the most common response with actions including remembering to keep inhalers nearby (27%) and taking an extra dose of medication to prevent symptoms (14%). Avoiding exposure was the second and third most popular answer including staying indoors (19%) and reducing strenuous exercise (15%).

Finally 87.4% of participants stated that the airTEXT service had raised their awareness of air quality issues.

“A useful additional tool in managing what can be a distressing ‘invisible’ chronic illness.” A citizen using airTEXT