For patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, exposure to air pollutants such as sulphur and nitrogen oxides can worsen the condition. But researchers from the National Technical University of Athens in Greece say that smartphones and sensors could help sufferers avoid environments with such pollution.

According to the American Lung Association, more than 12.7 million adults in the US age 18 and over were estimated to have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in 2011.

Smoking is the primary cause of COPD, while other risk factors include exposure to air pollution, secondhand smoke, occupational dusts and chemicals, heredity and a history of childhood respiratory infections.

The researchers, Ioannis Kouris and Dimitris Koutsouris, say that COPD is usually defined as two conditions deemed untreatable – emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

They note that regardless of how a person developed COPD, exposure to dust or air pollutants, such as carbon monoxide from vehicles, factories and power stations, can make the condition worse.

In a study recently published in the International Journal of Computational Intelligence Studies, the investigators propose the idea that smartphones could help COPD sufferers avoid high-pollution environments.

The researchers say that wearable or environmental sensors connected to the internet could provide “invaluable and timely information.”

They tested their theory at the university campus. Their system architecture pulls together data from the “internet of things” (sensors and actuators embedded in physical objects that are linked to wireless networks), weather forecasts, the smartphone itself, as well as data from any sensors the user is carrying.

All data collected would then be sent to an “advisory” that can inform COPD sufferers of which environments to avoid that may worsen their illness.

Explaining the system further, the investigators add:

Data processing schemas are presented, distributing the execution of the calculations between the smartphone and a cloud-hosted service, achieving the ideal equilibrium between processing speed, system scalability and battery life of the mobile devices.”

The researchers say this approach could also be effective for people who suffer from asthma and could also be used for employee safety systems and public health management.

They are now in the process of creating software that could allow users to collect data from specific sensors that are relevant to them.

Furthermore, the investigators are looking to modify the system so that users can collect data from other users when they enter a certain environment. They say this would reduce processing overheads and battery consumption, while the user would only receive the information they need.

This is not the only research to look at the use of smartphones in the medical world. Last year, Medical News today reported on a study detailing the creation of a portable smartphone microscope that can detect viruses, while other research reports on a smartphone device that can test for kidney damage.