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Pigeon patrol tracks air pollution in London

Backpack-wearing pigeons track pollution in L... 02:51

Meet the most unlikely agents in the fight against air pollution -- pigeons. This week, a small flock of racing pigeons were strapped with pollution-sensing backpacks and sent out into the skies of London for three days to monitor the city's air pollution levels.

The backpacks are designed to monitor levels of nitrogen dioxide and ozone gases produced by diesel cars, trucks, and buses that spew out exhaust all over the city. Then this information is tweeted out to through the Twitter account @PigeonAir to raise awareness about the negative impact of air pollution on a city like London.

The pigeon patrol was created by Plume Labs, a company that produces air quality reports, in partnership with the marketing agency DigitasLBi and Twitter.

"The reality is that we are all exposed to really toxic gases in our everyday lives," Pierre Duquesnoy, creative director at Digitas LBI, told CBS News correspondent Charlie D'Agata.

Looking something like a team of avian ghostbusters with their high-tech backpacks, the birds' findings can be tracked on a map of the city on the Pigeon Air website.

"There's something about taking what is seen as a flying rat and reversing that into something quite positive," Duquesnoy told The Guardian.

He said that while Beijing often makes headlines for its air pollution levels, there are days when "pollution was higher and more toxic in London."

So far, the readings have shown areas of the city fluctuating between moderate and high pollution levels.

Air pollution is a serious health issue. It's estimated that 10,000 people die prematurely each year in London alone due to breathing polluted air. The World Health Organization says poor air quality contributes to seven million deaths each year worldwide.

Gary Fuller, an air quality expert at King's College London, found the idea of pollution-sensing pigeons important in pointing out this serious public health and environmental concern.

"It's great that unemployed pigeons from Trafalgar Square are being put to work," he told The Guardian. "Around 15 years ago tests were done on around 150 stray dogs in Mexico City, showing the ways in which air pollution was affecting lungs and heart health. But this is the first time that I've heard of urban wild animals being used to carry sensors to give us a picture of the air pollution over our heads."

Following this week's pigeon patrol, the next phase in the project will recruit 100 human volunteers for a beta test of people-friendly wearable pollution monitors.

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