Strawberry Fields for Better: Thousands of Plants Help Test Urban Pollution 

It’s a fruity proposition.

Scientists are using strawberries to measure the air quality in 17 Spanish cities, thanks to the plant’s ability to absorb particles and heavy metals.

The study could ultimately improve urban living conditions.

The strawberry plants ready to be delivered or handed in. (Ideas For Change/Real Press)

“The project is about pollution in our cities and how we can improve the urban environment. But to me, the key point is also that it’s an educational project. People are made aware. They are informed and involved, and the response has been overwhelming,” said Daniel Lisbona, Vigilantes del Aire IT and web director on Nov. 6.

Lisbona is part of the consortium behind the study, which includes the Ibercivis Foundation, Ecology Institute of the Pyrenees (Ipe-CSIC) and the Spanish foundation for Science and Technology (FECYT), along with the environmental group Vigilantes del Aire (Guards of the Air).

Participants in the study will keep the plants for three months. Researchers hope to collect around 50% of the plants. Once the samples are received and tested, they will be able to map different concentration points of pollution in the cities studied.

The groups have received state funding from the FECYT (Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology-Ministry of Science and Technology). They also count dozens of regional ambassadors with thousands of participants, consisting of NGOs, schools and neighborhood groups, as collaborators.

The research began as a pilot project in Zaragoza in 2017 and expanded to five regions across the country — Basque Country, Galicia, Aragon, Catalunya and Andalucia — in October 2019. The initial data findings may also aid cities in traffic regulation.

The ongoing research is critical. Urban air pollution has been defined by the European Union as the most pressing environmental health problem in Europe, and Spanish cities are among the hardest hit.

In July, 2020, the European Union referred Spain to the European Court of Justice for its failure to comply with maximum values of nitrogen dioxide. Nitrogen dioxide is emitted mainly by car traffic. According to the commission, 9,000 Spaniards die every year from breathing nitrogen dioxide polluted air.

The sensors use to measure circulation in the cities. (Ideas For Change/Real Press)

“It’s too early to talk about what specific changes it may bring. Maybe in a couple of years we can address that. Right now, the objective is to deliver information,” Lisbona said.

Spain isn’t alone in using strawberries to measure pollution. Six other European countries have participated in AlRbezen — Belgium, France, Portugal, Switzerland, Poland and Estonia — to determine if there is a link between air quality and green space.

Household plants are also helpful in combating indoor air pollution, including the spider plant.

Spain claimed the highest production of strawberries in 2018, an estimated 761,000 pounds.

(Edited by Fern Siegel and Carlin Becker)



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