By now, we all know the grim health risks posed by air pollution, but as a reminder, they include lung damage, diabetes, skin problems, mental health problems, and heart disease. Still, there’s not much city-dwellers can do to avoid being slowly killed by the air they breathe, save for wearing anti-pollution masks.
But what if, instead of wearing a dorky mask, you wore a shirt that alerted you to perilous pollution levels? When considering how to navigate the dystopian future (and present) of polluted urban spaces, designer Nikolas Bentel came up with Aerochromics, a line of clothing that changes color based on surrounding air quality. Made of cotton equipped with air sensors and color-changing dyes, the shirts’ fabric shifts from black to white when in the presence of radioactivity, carbon monoxide, or particulate pollution.
“Aerochromics allows us to not only participate in the dialogue surrounding pollution but also to change the way we move through and think about our urban spaces,” Bentel told Hyperallergic over email. The design fuses environmentalism with fashion and wearable tech. And, unlike most items in the latter category, it’s not conspicuously geeky.
Three shirts with different black-and-white patterns detect three different kinds of pollution. A white shirt with black blobs detects the presence of carbon monoxide, the colorless, odorless gas that causes the majority of cases of fatal air poisoning. White polka dots appear on a black shirt in the presence of particle pollution — found in the smog, haze, and dust most city-dwellers experience daily — which can increase the risk of heart disease, lung cancer, and asthma attacks. A coral-like pattern of white squiggles appears on a black shirt that senses radioactivity, which can cause cancer and damage DNA, and is becoming a more common risk in homes and urban spaces around the world. At 60 AQI (Air Quality Index), aka “moderate” pollution levels, the shirts’ patterns start to appear. They’re completely revealed at 160 AQI, indicating unhealthy pollution levels.
For chemistry nerds, here’s an example of how the color-changing process works. The carbon monoxide–detecting shirt uses a process similar to that of a carbon monoxide blob detector, a sticker used in homes and and workplaces. When carbon monoxide touches the clothing, it’s oxidized by the chemical salts on the fabric and turns into carbon dioxide. These chemicals in the dye are simultaneously reduced — in other words, they lose some oxygen atoms. This process changes the color of the fabric to black. The dye also contains chemical salts made from transition metals. Once the carbon monoxide has been removed, the metal salts steal some oxygen from the air and changes the catalyst back to its original chemical form — so the detectors in the fabric change back to white again.
Most existing air quality sensors are stuck in fixed positions, and there’s a dearth of them in developing cities. Apps like AirBeam allow you to bring sensors along with you, but you have to carry a clunky gadget. “The first goal [of Aerochromics] is to start a conversation about building a healthier relationship with our planet not by creating another fifth limb that we have to take care of, but by using something that we already use everyday — a shirt,” Bentel says.
It’s an intriguing concept, but could wearing pollution-sensing clothing really become a common practice? And how can it actually help? (Once your shirt changes color, do you alert everyone around you?) Bentel is convinced wearable technology could play a part in protecting people’s health. “Our vision is to create a system of interconnected sensors that will help us better understand the causes and effects of pollution,” he says. “This Internet-of-Things concept for the shirts will be imperative to develop more effective solutions in fighting pollution.”
Aerochromics shirts are available for purchase here.