Science at Home: Are we headed for clearer skies?

We’ve been hearing a lot about air pollution recently, and experienced it first-hand during the recent bushfires.  But now it’s thought that one good thing may come from the devastating COVID-19 pandemic: cleaner air. There are reports that the air quality has improved in areas of China where human activity has been slashed for a few months due to the pandemic.

Air pollutants can cause a range of human health conditions, from cancer and birth defects to lifelong respiratory conditions (like asthma and lung disease) and cardiovascular disease. To reduce air pollution and improve our health, Australia has developed national air pollution standards and monitors pollutants.

But what exactly are they? Air pollutants are liquids, gases or other tiny particles, and there are different kinds: ‘Air toxics’ are usually always present in the air at low levels, and can be harmful to humans, plants or animals. They usually come from vehicle and industry emissions, paints, and burning solid fuels (like wood, straw, coal) for energy. Then there’s ‘Criteria pollutants’ which include nitrogen dioxide, photochemical oxidants (including ozone), carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, lead and particles, which come from industry, vehicles, burning (wood fires and bushfires), fossil fuels, machinery, dust (you may have seen dust storms around Australia). And here’s a fun fact – your skin could be an air pollutant! Human and animal skin and droppings, and microbes like mould are considered ‘biological pollutants’.

Satellite data from NASA and the European Space Agency has shown a drop in pollution over Wuhan since the COVID-19 outbreak, specifically in nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a gas mainly emitted by road vehicles, power plants and industrial equipment. With areas in quarantine, there were fewer vehicles on the roads and many factories were shut down, causing less emissions.

While the industry and transport system of the world are not going to remain shut down forever, there are some things you could start doing at home to help with air pollution – planting plants! Because plants can absorb many pollutants through their leaves and roots, there’s thinking that planting trees near factories may help reduce pollution.

If you want to get some ‘plant’ practise while you’re stuck in your own neighbourhood, why not start your own plant collection (although, best not to do it to clean the air in your house – despite years of claims that pot plants clean air inside the house, this process happens very very slowly). Here are some ways you can start:

Many plants, like succulents and geraniums, can be grown from cuttings – basically all you need to do is ask a neighbour (keeping current distancing rules in mind) who already has some in their garden if you can cut some at the stem, then take it home and plant it in a pot. You could start your own terrarium in an old jar – recycling and supporting living things! You can also use all kinds of spare household objects to make plant pots.

If you’re interested in the environment, you might be interested in our Environmental Science degree.

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