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Researchers with New England Connections Earn EPA Award for Innovative Research

Release Date: 06/12/2013
Contact Information: David Deegan, (617) 918-1017

(Boston, Mass. – June 12, 2013) – A team of three New England-educated scientists who have designed an innovative clothing line to help measure the harmful health effects of air pollution has been awarded $100,000 in a prestigious federal award.

The winning team includes Gabrielle Dockterman of Carlisle, Mass., David Kuller of Milan, Italy, formerly of Minnesota, and Dot Kelly of Darien, Conn. The team was honored by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for designing a “Conscious Clothing” system to calculate the amount of polluted air a person inhales. Kuller, the lead inventor, is a 1982 graduate of MIT, where he worked in the institute’s Media Lab in its earliest days. Dockterman is a 1983 graduate of Harvard University and Kelly, the team chemist, earned her bachelor’s in chemistry from Yale University in 1980.

EPA and the NIH announced the winner of the “My Air, My Health Challenge” on June 4 at Datapalooza IV in Washington, D.C. The Challenge called on innovators nationwide to design a small, low-cost sensor to help EPA and NIH in their joint efforts to better understand, in real time, the impacts of harmful air pollution on people’s health.

Estimates of pollution exposure result from how deeply the person breathes and how much pollution is in the air, according to the project description. With this wearable, real-time breathing analysis tool, health data and pollution information is transmitted to any Bluetooth-enabled device, such as a cell phone.

“This kind of research project could help EPA and the National Institutes of Health in our joint efforts to know more about how air pollution affects the health of the public,” said Curt Spalding, regional administrator of EPA’s New England office. “Having a more precise understanding of exposure to pollution can assist peoples’ efforts to protect their health from the harmful effects of poor air quality.”

These new data-collecting devices will let researchers see and understand the relationships between varying levels of chemical exposures and individual health responses—in real time, according to Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences at NIH. “This is a big step forward toward treating, and more importantly, preventing disease and illness. This is an exciting time in research,” Birnbaum said.

These types of low-cost, portable, easy-to-use sensors have the potential to produce a more complete picture of air quality and individual health in communities across the country.

The proposal describes comfortable clothing that would calculate on a per-breath basis the amount of particulate matter inhaled. This would lead to calculations of the quantity of pollution the body is receiving inside the lungs.

To the knowledge of team members, this is the first low-cost device that measures breath, according to Ms. Dockterman. She sums up her team’s vision: “We are excited by the potential of wearable sensors like the one we have invented, for both consumer sportswear and research use.”

The clothing created has potential in consumer sportswear as well as helping researchers and consumers with asthma, sleep apnea and SIDS, she noted. As a result the team is working on a business plan and looking for partners to help them bring it to the market.

Kuller, the lead inventor, has worked in many areas of high-tech innovation and has founded several startups. His family-owned Minnesota business began as a knitting mill more than 100 years ago and is now a high-tech knitting mill that supplies several of the most innovative manufacturers of athletic gear. Kuller has developed many products based on the high-tech, high-performance fabrics manufactured in his family business.

Dockterman, team leader, graduated with honors from Harvard, receiving a bachelor’s in engineering/computer science, with significant coursework in visual and environmental studies. At Harvard, she also studied artificial intelligence with MIT’s Marvin Minsky. Coming from a small town in rural Montana, she was the first generation in her family to attend college.

Kelly, team chemist, is a former director of energy and environmental services for Ciba Specialty Chemicals. She is the past leader of an eco-efficiency project for President Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development, a prior advisory board member of Harvard’s Center for Risk Analysis and Yale’s Next Generation of Environmental Policy project. She also led a brownfield site petroleum remediation and geothermal energy installation for her town’s new library.

More information on the My Air, My Health Challenge: http://epa.gov/research/challenges.

A video describing the clothing line can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=XPvyIXdkc4g

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