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Rewriting Life

AT&T Labs Builds an Asthma-Trigger Detection Device

The chemical-sniffing setup will send data to the Web so doctors and patients can get a better sense of what causes attacks.

More people are diagnosed with asthma each year, and the irritants that trigger the disease’s symptoms may be caused by common household products.

One out of every 12 people in the U.S. have asthma, and the number of people diagnosed with the chronic and sometimes fatal disease grows each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Asthma attacks can be triggered by a variety of inhaled substances, from natural sources including pollen and pet dander as well as chemical compounds such as household cleaners and air pollution. To help people with asthma identify and avoid the chemical irritants that cause asthma attacks, AT&T labs researchers are developing a sensor that can sniff the air for known asthma triggers.

“Everybody’s triggers are different,” says Bob Miller, head of communications technology research at AT&T Labs in Florham Park, New Jersey. Miller’s group has built a prototype of a portable sensor that can detect volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that may be found in homes. Carpets, fragrances, smoke, and cleaners can all emit asthma-inducing VOCs. The room-monitoring device will wirelessly connect to online health networks where doctors and patients can look for clues in data collected over time.

Other groups are also tapping into mobile technology to improve the health of people with asthma. For example, Madison, Wisconsin-based Asthmapolis has developed a sensor that attaches to inhalers that track whether asthma patients are taking their medication. If they miss one, a reminder will be sent to their phone. That data can also be sent to a server where a doctor can view it.

In addition to helping asthma patients and their doctors identify indoor triggers, the AT&T device could also warn people of high levels of a known trigger. “You might be able to go outside and get some fresh air,” says Miller. Or, using the system’s Zigbee wireless connectivity, which can link together many devices onto one network, the AT&T sensor system could “turn on the blower in your furnace to clear out the air.”

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