By Michelle Werts

“Air pollution is causing more deaths than HIV or malaria combined,” Kandeh Yumkella, director general of the U.N. Industrial Development Organization, told a conference in Oslo trying to work out new U.N. development goals for 2030. The Huffington Post Green, April 9, 2013

Air pollution in New York City’s Washington Heights
Air pollution in New York City’s Washington Heights. Credit: Susan Sermoneta

Sometimes, when talking about air pollution, we get so caught up in the web of science and climate change that we forget about one of the basics: Air pollution is bad for you.

  • Irritate the respiratory system.
  • Reduce lung function.
  • Inflame and damage the cells that line the lungs.
  • Make the lungs more susceptible to infection.
  • Aggravate asthma.
  • Aggravate other chronic lung diseases.
  • Cause permanent lung damage.

And unfortunately, 131.8 million people — or 42 percent — of the U.S. population live in areas with dangerous pollution levels as reported in the American Lung Association’s “State of the Air 2013” report.

While various agencies put emissions restrictions and building regulations in place to try to create cleaner air throughout the country, a new study reveals that we can do something to help ourselves: plant trees!

Last month, U.S. Forest Service researchers David Nowak, who is also an American Forests Science Advisory Board member, and Robert Hoehn, along with The Davey Institute’s Satoshi Hirabayashi and Allison Bodine, revealed that the urban forests in 10 cities across the country save on average one person a year from pollution-related death. In New York City, that number increases to eight people per year.

New York City, where eight lives are saved each year from trees removing fine particulate matter from the air
New York City, where eight lives are saved each year from trees removing fine particulate matter from the air. Credit: Chris Topher

The study, published in Environmental Pollution, looked specifically at the removal of particulate pollution less than 2.5 microns in size — you need a microscope to see particles that small. This size of particulate is often referred to as a fine particulate and is produced by motor vehicles, power plants, wood burning, wildfire, agricultural burning and more. The research details how the average annual percent of air quality improvement ranged between 0.05 percent in San Francisco and 0.24 percent in Atlanta with the total amount of fine particulates being removed annually by urban trees varying from 10,361 pounds in Syracuse to 142,198 pounds in Atlanta. When converting the fine particulate removal to a monetary value, urban forests are doing millions of dollars’ worth of work! And all they ask of us in return is a little TLC.

So, make sure to support your local urban forest program that is helping take care of those trees. The trees are working for us, so let’s work for them, too.