University joins forces with BBC to clear Lancastrian air

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Collaboration between Lancaster University and the BBC has seen a residential area in Lancaster sprout roadside foliage in order quite literally to clear the air.

Following an experiment by Professor Barbara Maher, of the university’s Centre for Environmental Magnetism and Paleomagnetism, into the improvement in levels of air pollution as a result of trees placed along the A6 last summer, the BBC instigated collaboration on the pioneering research. Four households on South Road, in Lancaster city centre, allowed a row or thirty potted birch trees to be placed directly outside their doors for the fortnight-long experiment. A further four households were used as control subjects and did not have any trees placed outside.

The project is for a BBC2 science health programme, which is to be aired as part of a series this autumn. The work undertaken by Professor Maher aims to investigate whether trees can help reduce the levels of air pollution infiltrating a residence by intercepting the minute particles – or ‘particulates’ – of pollution emitted from nearby traffic. The project builds upon dissertation work conducted by student Rob Clarke, who is also assisting in the undertaking.

As a section of the busy A6 thoroughfare, South Road sees a heavy volume of traffic flow into and out of Lancaster every day – especially during peak times such as the pre- and post-work rush hours. Residents living in this area may find the evidence that their exposure to harmful pollution can be reduced simply by installing a ‘shrubbery shield’ to be reassuring.

One participant in the experiment, Danny Rurlander, said: “We’ve lived here for eight years and have been more worried about the noise – I’ve never thought about pollution.

“But I work in my front room and am now wondering what I’ve been breathing in.”

Levels of particulate pollution were measured by comparing dust particles on television screens in both groups of houses: those with and those without trees on the doorstep.

Professor Maher hopes the results to have a far-reaching positive impact on people’s exposure to harmful particulate pollution, though she also made clear the increase in interior pollution levels caused by other factors such as smoking and cooking fatty foods. Likewise, particulate levels in the exterior environment will be influenced by weather conditions and the time of day. Rain may wash particulates away, whilst heavy volumes of traffic at peak travel times will cause higher levels to accumulate.

In correspondence with SCAN, Professor Maher stated that a key aim is “to get some new data on how effective tree leaves can be in reducing particulate concentrations both outdoors and inside people’s homes”. She added that “there’s some debate to be had on this, and we’re keen to pin down some policy-useful information on this asap”.

The researchers of Lancaster’s Centre for are keen to investigate and resolve “real-world problems”. As Maher explained, “[O]ur magnetic analyses provide a new, very sensitive and cost-effective way of tracing the sources and movements of particles (whether natural or anthropogenic) through the environment.

“It’s good that the BBC is taking the time and effort to raise awareness of the health impacts of exposure to particulate pollution. […]Doing an experiment in such a public way, and getting dates when everyone – and the tree leaves – are ready, are among the more challenging things about working with the BBC.”

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