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Balloon helps Parisians breathe easy

By Jim Bittermann, CNN
  • Air de Paris balloon tells Parisians whether the quality of the air is good, bad or indifferent
  • The tethered, helium balloon uses a traffic light color code system
  • Paris, like many European cities, working hard to reduce air pollution

Paris, France (CNN) -- When it comes to air pollution, Paris is not much different from any other European city. It has its good days and its bad.

But unlike elsewhere you don't need to be a scientist to tell them apart. All you have to do is look up into the air.

Floating 150 meters above the Parc Andre Citroen, in Paris's 15th arrondissement is the Air de Paris, a giant tethered helium balloon telling Parisians how good or bad the air quality is.

When it's good the balloon -- measuring 22 meters wide and 32 meters high -- glows green. When bad, it's red. And when it's so so, it glows orange. During the day, banners and LCD screens flash the same shade.

Air quality is measured using data from dozens of sensors monitoring levels of nitrogen dioxide, ozone and particles around the city.

The balloon was originally designed as a tourist attraction, affording a bird's eye view of the French capital. But in 2008 its operators, Aerophile struck upon the idea of using it as an environmental indicator as well.

Video: A balloon like no other

It's an ideal platform from which to monitor the condition of the air and, according to Matthieu Gobbi, general director of Aerophile, one which symbolizes eco-friendliness.

"The balloon itself is a sign of respect for the air, respect of nature. The balloon is very friendly -- there is no noise, there is no motor, we don't burn any fuel. We just fly naturally with a natural force so the balloon is very suitable to speak about pollution concerns," Gobbi told CNN.

But more importantly, the information is used to determine pollution alert levels -- for people who suffer from breathing problems and to impose restrictions on driving should they be needed.

Every city in Europe is facing big challenges to meet air quality regulations says Karine Leger from Airparif, the agency in charge of air quality in Ile de France.

"In Paris, we reach levels that are twice higher than the regulation and that's really a big challenge," Leger said.

Denis Baupin, Paris's deputy mayor, says air pollution in the city can shorten the lives of Parisians by up to nine months, compared to people who live in the countryside.

"Scientists say that every year two or three thousand people die in the Paris area because of air pollution," Baupin told CNN.

Baupin is in charge of environmental policy in Paris and the city is making steps towards improving air quality and constructing more eco-friendly public transport, like trams, cycle routes and reducing cars on the city's roads by a quarter.

Raised and lowered by a small electric winch, the Air de Paris is probably one of the city's least polluting transportation systems. But its operators say its real value is raising public consciousness about pollution.

"Every morning we have three classrooms coming from the schools of Paris, they come in the balloon, have a fun flight and also they learn about the air quality," Jerome Giacomoni, president of Aerophile told CNN.