(Bloomberg) -- It’s no surprise the London Underground is polluted, but outside the Parisian Louvre museum? You’d be forgiven for thinking the adjacent Andre Le Notre-designed Tuileries gardens would’ve made the air more breathable.
A device by startup Plume Labs kills that assumption. The 4-inch tall gadget -- named Flow -- sends real-time air quality readings to a smartphone app based on four levels, going from low pollution to very high, and flashes colored warnings on the unit.
Alerts for moderate or bad air quality lit up on London’s subterranean transport network, and the city’s Kings Cross St Pancras and Waterloo rail stations. In Paris, the Seine river bank, which has been partially closed off to cars by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, as well as the capital’s Gare du Nord station, also prompted warnings.
Mayors of cities including the U.K. and French capitals have waged a war on pollution in recent years, with pledges of cleaner air and healthier environments to citizens, and measures from partial driving bans to congestion tolls. Levels of the harmful air pollutant nitrogen dioxide in the center of London are worse than Beijing.
Plume argues pollution should be measured more locally because there are huge differences within a city -- sometimes tenfold within a few hundred meters -- and people’s habits indoors, from cooking to using cleaning products or air fresheners, affect the air they breathe.
With the Flow device fastened onto my handbag to measure fine-particles and harmful gases around me, I found out the air is better near Big Ben than the Eiffel Tower, cleaner on the Champs-Elysees than in London’s Square Mile, and really dirty on the Eurostar. Even a reading near a food truck that sells fish and chips on the Thames was terrible, likely because of burning oil.
“Not everyone’s going to move to the countryside for cleaner air, so we have to address people’s need for breathing better within cities,” said David Lissmyr, co-founder and chief technology officer. “The best way to do that is with personalized data.”
Websites Airparif in Paris and Londonair in the U.K. capital already generate weather reports on pollution by using measuring stations in and around urban areas. Their data shows the limits recommended by the World Health Organization and regional regulators for being exposed to several air pollutants were repeatedly breached this year in downtown London and Paris.
Flow, which retails for 179 euros in Europe and $179 in the U.S., measures factors such as categories of fine-particles and volatile organic compounds (VOC). Those pollutants have been blamed for diseases from asthma and bronchitis to lung cancer.
During my trip, the London Underground received a purple light and “very high pollution” rating for levels of fine-particles, frequently associated with underground transportation. The level of VOC prompted a warning in a university classroom in the French capital, which may have been caused by factors including cleaning solvents.
Readings on the street mostly oscillated between “low” and “moderate” -- the first two ratings on the four-level scale -- with minor variations between when I walked on roads with heavy traffic or smaller streets. The results weren’t as surprising or sharply varying as with indoor pollution. The readings outside depend on a lot of factors, including temperature, wind, and pollution within a broader area, which means they can vary a lot from one day to the next.
Plume was founded four years ago by French entrepreneurs Lissmyr and Romain Lacombe, graduates from MIT and Stanford, and has so far raised about $6 million.
With more granular data, the startup says it’ll eventually be able to suggest the cleanest route to bike into work or go for a jog, or the best time to open the windows at home for fresh air.
“We want to go beyond people knowing they’re breathing bad air and freaking out about it,” Lissmyr said. “Flow is about changing behaviors and avoid being -- and breathing -- in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
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