Ever sit in traffic during rush hour wondering what you’re breathing?

Or for the city commuters, ever walk into a subway stop wondering “what is that smell?” and more importantly, “how is the smell affecting my health”?.

Well, you’re not the only one.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are teaming to sponsor a new mobile health challenge called the My Air, My Health Challenge seeking to determine exposure to air pollution at any location and provide relevant health information.

The My Air, My Health Challenge calls on innovators from various disciplines to develop a “personal, portable, near-real-time, location-specific system to monitor and report air pollutants and potentially related physiological parameters” in the words of the organizers. The EPA and HHS are initially looking for designs that use a sensor to measure air quality and connect this quality to some health measurements in a specific community or population.

Innovators do not have to create a sensor for this competition. However, they also do not have to use one that is commercially available. The purpose of this system is to provide users with a clearer picture of how air quality affects them. This system may also affect the behavior of people by convincing them to leave any area that is somehow harming their health.

The EPS and HHS will choose four designs from the original submissions for a second phase in which innovators create working prototypes of their systems. The innovators must also demonstrate how the system can be used by health and environmental government agencies as well as by citizens. The system also needs to be user friendly and have some impact on long term health outcomes. With these and other high expectations in mind, EPA and HHS will choose one winner from the first four teams selected.

This challenge has a number of implications beyond connecting air quality to health measurements. For example, this information could be linked to neighborhoods and used to increase or decrease property value. Another use might be to determine the quality of air in a work environment in order to bring attention to any harmful exposure that a worker suspects.

People might use such a device instead of a commonly used detector – like a carbon monoxide protector. For people who cannot smell, the device may act as a de facto nose for sensing certain types of exposures that are harmful. Such devices may serve as a source of evidence for lawyers seeking to prove that a company is exposing a neighborhood to some harmful air pollutant, and much more. Such a device may open up a larger can of worms that the EPA/HHS has anticipated. Innovators will determine just how many aspects of life will be affected by this future device.

An interesting feature of this challenge is that a webinar will be held on Tuesday June 19, 2012 from 4pm – 5pm (EDT) to provide potential entrants with more information. More information can be found on the challenge website.