Students help track air pollution in Australian-first citizen science study

Media release

07 March 2023

Deakin University has begun a pioneering citizen science study that will measure children's exposure to air pollution as they travel to schools in Melbourne's inner west.

'Breathe Melbourne' is led by Deakin in collaboration with Dyson and involves grade four to six students at six primary schools who will wear Dyson backpacks that collect air quality data as they commute to and from school.

Research lead Dr Kate Lycett, Senior Research Fellow at the School of Psychology, said the study aims to equip, empower and educate children as air quality scientists, raise community awareness and collect valuable data to help tackle inner-city air pollution.

"As our future leaders, children will be faced with many complex problems including air pollution and its effects," Dr Lycett said.

"We hope the project will nurture children's scientific curiosity, improve our understanding of air pollution, and ultimately lead to behaviour and government policy changes to reduce exposure to air pollution in Melbourne's inner west."

More than 300 primary school students across the six schools will be given the air sensing backpack technology to carry to and from school for a period of four days.

The data will be analysed by the Deakin research team who will work with participating students on behavioural solutions to improve the quality of air they breathe.

Students will also complete a survey to identify how the study has impacted their understanding of air pollution and engagement in science and technology.

Participating schools will have access to an optional air quality educational resource provided by the James Dyson Foundation (JDF). This resource encourages students to work like real engineers to investigate air pollution and evaluate existing solutions.

Dyson's air quality backpack is a portable air sensing device that re-works existing sensing technology used in Dyson air purifiers.

With on-board sensors measuring PM2.5, PM10, NO₂, VOCs and CO₂, a battery pack and GPS, it collects air pollution data on the move.

Matt Jennings, Category Director of Environmental Care at Dyson, said the backpack was initially developed by Dyson engineers for the Breathe London Wearables Study – a similar project in the UK in collaboration with King's College London and the Greater London Authority.

"Our engineers used knowledge derived from years of experience and research in air cleaning technology to develop intelligent sensors, compact enough to fit in children's backpacks," Mr Jennings said.

"As a result of the study, more than 30 per cent of the children said they would change the way they commute to and from school to reduce their exposure to air pollution.

"We continue to see the benefit of using our air monitoring technology to make the invisible visible - highlighting air pollution exposure indoors, outdoors and on the move.

"We hope that Breathe Melbourne increases awareness about the problem of air pollution and educates individuals on how they can reduce their own daily exposure, while providing robust scientific evidence of the outdoor pollution we are exposed to every day."

Due to its industrial history, proximity to the Port of Melbourne, and the high volume of diesel-fuelled vehicles in the area, Melbourne's inner west has higher air pollution levels than other areas in Melbourne.[1] It also has higher rates of emergency department presentations for childhood asthma compared to other areas.[2]

Professor Lou Irving, Director of Respiratory and Sleep Medicine and Director of Clinical Training at the Royal Melbourne Hospital said air pollution was predicted by the World Health Organisation to be one of the greatest environmental risks to health.[3]

"That's because of the amount of poor air quality throughout the world, but also the diverse adverse health effects it can have," Professor Irving said.

Melbourne's inner west is a hotspot for active asthma in children, with a higher prevalence of emergency department asthma presentations than most other areas of Australia.[4]

"Breathe Melbourne is a very important study because it focuses on a group of children who we know are already at risk because of poor air quality, and it's aimed at helping to reduce the risk, as well as aiding the management of asthma symptoms." Professor Irving said.

The 2020 Inner West Air Quality Community Reference Group Report, commissioned by the Victorian Government, provided recommendations for reducing community exposure to air pollution in the inner west.

Breathe Melbourne supports these recommendations by empowering children and their communities to learn about air pollution and act on it. Additionally, the data collected through the project can help to inform government policy by providing insight on pollution exposure in the area.

Professor Mark Patrick Taylor, Chief Environmental Scientist for Environment Protection Authority Victoria (EPA) said the EPA works to protect the health of the environment and the health of Victorians.

"We know any level of air pollution can negatively affect human health and our environment – this project will add to our existing air quality monitoring to drive evidence-based insights, health advice and decision making," Professor Taylor said.

In addition to the Breathe Melbourne study, two of the participating primary schools will be involved in the Idle Off Pilot project which seeks to educate individuals on the risks of idling vehicles and encourage parents to turn off their engines when not using them, to help reduce air quality and improve student health.

Jackie Green, Principal at Spotswood Primary School, one of the participating schools said Spotswood Primary was excited to be a part of the Breathe Melbourne project.

"Living and learning close to some of Melbourne's busiest roads, it is important for us to understand more about the quality of the air in our local area," Ms Green said.

"We are passionate to find out about choices we can make to have a positive impact on the air quality in our community and look after our health."

The primary schools will be collecting data in the coming months with the findings due to be published later this year.

See more information on Breathe Melbourne on the Dyson Newsroom and Deakin University Website.

[1] Air Pollution in Melbourne’s Inner West – Inner West Air Quality Community Reference Group.

[2] Based upon data from Torrens University Australia (2020) Social Atlas of Australia: Victoria Local Government Areas (2016 ASGS). <>


[4] Based upon data from Torrens University Australia (2020) Social Atlas of Australia: Victoria Local Government Areas (2016 ASGS). <>

Share this story

Share this story

More like this

Media release Faculty of Health, School of Psychology Centre for Social and Early Emotional Development (SEED)