Leaves used to measure pollution

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Tree leaves may be used as a means to monitor air quality and plan biking routes and walking paths, according to new US research.

Tree leaves may be used as a means to monitor air quality and plan biking routes and walking paths, suggests a new study by scientists at Western Washington University in Bellingham.

Leaves along bus routes were up to 10 times more magnetic than leaves on quieter streets, the study found. That magnetism comes from tiny particles of pollution - such as iron oxides from diesel exhaust - that float through the air and either stick to the leaves or are trapped in them.

Geophysicist Bernie Housen and colleague Luigi Jovane collected several leaves from 15 trees in and around Bellingham in Washington. Five of the trees lay next to busy bus routes. Five sat on parallel, but much quieter side streets. Five were in a rural area nearby.

Using two measurement techniques, Housen and Jovane found that leaves along bus routes were between two and eight times more magnetic than leaves from nearby streets and between four and 10 times more magnetic than rural leaves.

Inhaling particulate matter has been linked to a number of negative health consequences, including breathing troubles and even heart problems. Tiny particles bypass the airways and get deep into the lung tissues.

The new study suggests that biking or walking along heavy bus routes might be bad for health and that cities might want to consider these factors as they plan new routes for cyclists and pedestrians.

The study also suggests that collecting tree leaves can be a simple and effective way to measure the load of particulate matter in the air. European researchers have been exploring the idea for some time, but this is one of the first studies to apply the technique in the US.

'Using trees is a nice, low-tech way to do these studies because you don’t need to use fancy particle collectors,' Housen said.

The research will be presented at this month's Annual Meeting of the Geological Society of America in Portland, Oregon.