The world of sport and spectacle is at once timeless and changing. While the thrills of sweat, determination, and competitive spirit capture the modern spectator's attention in much the same way they did thousands of years ago, the modern athlete's ageless physical exertion's are increasingly underpinned by a vast and complex array of cutting-edge sport science and technology. Contemporary sports science is awash in attempts to squeeze every untapped morsel of energy and exertion from the body, straining ever closer to the perfect edge of human potential.

Among recent innovations is the Toronto-developed AirSENCE, which provides real-time, highly localized air pollution assessment, allowing athletes to calibrate practice times and regimens to the air quality in their immediate surroundings. In addition, the publicly accessible technology allows city residents access to local air quality measurements when planning activities, while a comprehensive city-wide system can provide both residents and municipal authorities with highly specific data regarding pollution across urban micro-climates. 

Debuted at Toronto's ongoing Pan Am Games, the air quality monitoring system provides precise, localized and inexpensive assessments of fine particle concentration and pollutants in city air. With a sensor situated at each Pan Am venue, athletes and spectators can access real-time air quality data for each event. The hyper-local readouts show variations in air quality throughout the city (below), potentially allowing for more locally calibrated health and safety parameters to be put in place.

AirSENCE, TorontoA map of PanAm venues showing local air quality, image courtesy of airsensors.ca

Developed by researchers at the University of Toronto in partnership with the AllerGen network, the AirSENCE readers use 14 sensors to measure concentrations of five pollutants (nitrogen oxides, ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide), monitoring local air quality in real time. For municipalities, the localized and comprehensive nature of AirSENCE monitors can allow authorities to identify areas of problematic air quality, facilitating more precise initiatives to improve public health.

For athletes, AirSENCE allows for fine-calibration of training times and routines, ensuring peak performance while protecting respiratory health. For residents and visitors to the city (and spectators), the AirSensors allow for more precise co-ordination of outdoor activities. While Toronto's air quality is fairly good by global standards, the precise, localized readouts can make a big difference for people with asthma and respiratory problems, particularly on days where overall air quality is below average.

AirSENCE, TorontoA chart showing pollution at a PanAm venue, image courtsey of airsensors.ca

Following AirSENCE's 'soft launch' during the Pan Am Games, the service is set to be introduced in Beijing in 2016, with other cities worldwide to follow. According to Dr. Greg Evans, a U of T chemical engineering professor who helped develop the technology, "AirSENCE will enable users worldwide to make better-informed choices to manage their exposures to outdoor or indoor pollutants, reducing both the risk of exacerbations of pre-existing health conditions, like asthma, and of development of chronic disease through long-term exposure.”

As the cloistered world of elite athletes continues to seem increasingly alienated from the ordinary lives of the spectators who watch them, it is heartening to find innovations in sports technology that provide benefits to everyone. For the Pan Am games, which have brought 41 very different countries—and thousands of Torontonians—together through sport, this seems a fitting part of the legacy.

The interactive, Pan Am air quality map can be found on airsensors.ca