Trees help reduce air pollution. They do this primarily by pulling gases (like ozone, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide) into their leaves and then diffusing them and/or chemically altering them so that they are no longer a direct threat to humans. They also intercept particulate matter, trapping it on the surfaces of their leaves until the wind comes along and blows it away or the rain comes around and washes it into the soil. Trees are filters in this sense, reducing the health threats of our polluted air.
But didn’t I just report on the contribution of urban trees to air pollution via their production of volatile organic compounds? Yes I did. And that remains a possibility; however, according to a study recently published in the journal, Environmental Pollution, the presence of trees is a great benefit to human health despite potential risks. More research is necessary of course, but the consensus so far is that having trees around is a net positive.
There have been many studies on the relationship between trees and air quality, but little is known about the extent to which human health impacts are avoided and the related money that is saved as a result of air pollution mitigation by trees and forests. With the aid of computer simulations, researchers at US Forest Service and The Davey Institute used 2010 Census data, tree cover maps from the 2001 National Land Cover Database, US EPA’s BenMAP program, and other data to seek answers to these questions. Their analyses – focused at the county level – involved the 48 contiguous United States.
According to their study, trees and forests removed around 17.4 million tons of air pollution in 2010, which resulted in a health care savings of $6.8 billion. 850 human deaths were avoided, and incidences of acute respiratory symptoms were reduced by 670,000. Ozone and nitrogen dioxide experienced the greatest decrease, while the removal of ozone and particulate matter resulted in the greatest health value. Air pollution removal was greater in rural areas compared to urban areas simply because there is more rural area in the US than urban area; however, the removal of air pollution was found to be more valuable in urban areas due to differences in population density. Resulting health benefits and savings are quite dramatic considering that air pollution removal by trees was only found to improve air quality by about 1%.
There were many things left out in this study though, and the researchers acknowledge this. First of all – as stated earlier – trees have the potential to contribute to air pollution. They emit volatile organic compounds which can result in ozone formation, they can reduce wind speeds which concentrates pollutants, and they produce pollen which is a direct contribution to air quality and a major health issue for those with serious allergies. But trees reduce air pollution in indirect ways as well. For example, by shading buildings, trees can reduce energy demands which results in decreased power plant emissions and a reduction in air pollution.
Trees can also be negatively affected by air pollution. When particulate matter collects on leaf surfaces, photosynthesis is compromised, limiting a tree’s ability to take gaseous air pollution into its leaves. Urban trees are stressed in additional ways. For example, trees growing near sidewalks, driveways, and roadways deal with serious soil compaction and are often not receiving optimal amounts of water, which can limit their ability to mitigate air pollution. Thus, environmental factors should be considered when determining the relationship between trees and air quality.
This study was conducted at the county level. The researchers acknowledge that more precise predictions could be obtained if analyses were conducted at a finer scale. “Local-scale design of trees and forests can affect local-scale pollutant concentrations.” So, the number of trees, their concentration and configuration, the length of the growing season, the percentage of evergreen trees vs. deciduous trees, etc. all play a role in the extent of air pollution reduction.
While limitations to the study abound, the researchers assert that this initial analysis gives “a first-order approximation of the magnitude of pollution removal by trees and their effect on human health.” Future studies will provide more accurate approximations, but for now I think it is safe to say that trees are good for our health and worthwhile things to have around.
This study focused mainly on health issues of the respiratory variety. The positive psychological benefits of plants have been observed in separate studies, and our also worthy of our consideration when determining the health benefits of trees and forests.