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Can Trees Clean Up Jet Pollution?

This article was originally published on the DEOHS blog.

Members of Seto’s team test a drone outfitted with air pollution sensors. From left, DEOHS PhD student Yisi Liu, UW undergraduate Chris Hayner, DEOHS postdoc Jianbang Xiang and Research Scientist Tim Gould. Photo: David Shean


New DEOHS study uses drones to test whether vegetation filters harmful aircraft pollution

Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York’s Central Park, once called trees the lungs of the city.

Trees and shrubs filter a variety of air pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide, ozone and particulate matter.

But could they also benefit communities near airports by absorbing harmful ultrafine particles from aircraft exhaust?

A team of University of Washington researchers led by Edmund Seto, associate professor in the Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences (DEOHS), is using drones to answer this question in King County.

Their new project, which was recently awarded a $75,000 UW EarthLab Innovation grant, is a partnership with the Seattle nonprofit community group El Centro de la Raza and state and local agencies.

The problem with ultrafine particles

Last year, Seto and colleagues reported that planes descending toward Seattle-Tacoma International Airport leave behind a plume of air pollution in communities underneath and downwind of their landing paths. Similar plumes have previously been documented at Los Angeles International Airport and others.

In their Mobile ObserVations of Ultrafine Particles (MOV-UP) study, Seto’s team showed that jet pollution is dominated by ultrafine particles, invisible flecks of less than a micron in diameter. When inhaled, they can pass into lung tissue and the bloodstream, as well as through the blood-brain barrier and across the placenta.

Greater exposure to these miniscule pollutants is linked with increased risk for heart and lung disease, some cancers and adverse birth outcomes. It may even contribute to cognitive issues such as dementia.

Community-inspired science

So what can we do about this? That was the question Seto heard again and again in talking with city leaders, community partners and residents about the results of the MOV-UP study.

Members of El Centro de La Raza, a nonprofit in Beacon Hill committed to serving the Latino community and people of all races, wondered whether urban planting projects could help.

As Seto dug into the literature, he found some hopeful evidence. It’s still unclear, however, what type and configuration of planting works best to filter out ultrafine particulates.

“Not every type of urban greening project might be as effective,” Seto said. “There are some interesting questions there.”

Read the rest of the story on the DEOHS blog.