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Twitter, Facebook viewed as way to warn Arizona asthmatics

PHOENIX – Social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter are being considered for inclusion in a system that would warn people with asthma when particulate pollution in their neighborhoods reaches levels that could trigger an attack.

Researchers and officials from Arizona state agencies, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and from universities met recently to discuss ways of notifying asthmatic children and the elderly about high-pollution advisories.

Preliminary plans call for warnings to go to schools and individuals through telephone networks and e-mail, but for the first time, social networking is also being considered.

“For some time, we’ve looked beyond traditional notification systems,” said Patrick Cunningham, interim director of the state Department of Environmental Quality. “For instance, we now send text messages about a high-pollution day to landscapers who might be using leaf blowers.”

Cunningham said officials could use sites like MySpace and Facebook to reach young people. “What we want is to be effective,” he said.

Under the system, people with asthma could register under their ZIP code with health officials, who would alert them via text or on Facebook, Twitter or other social media when neighborhood sensors detect high levels in their area.

Current pollution alerts, given through traditional media, generally cover all the Phoenix metro area even though high readings might be only in a small area.

The idea of the alert system grew out of a December study conducted at Arizona State University.

ASU engineering Professor Harindra Fernando said the network he hopes to develop in the Phoenix area will “tell you if tomorrow will be a good day or a bad day for asthmatics, and it will issue warnings from ZIP code to ZIP code.”

Fernando said he hopes that modifying an existing network that measures air pollution in Milan, Italy, and issues air-quality alerts specific to areas and developing an alert system can be done in the next two years, with a notification system in place by 2012.

Cunningham said he is going to ask the EPA for $300,000 to $500,000 to fund the project.

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