Plants Blamed for Human Deaths in Heat Waves

800px-JungleBrain Clark Howard writes at National Geographic:

A study published this week in the peer-reviewed journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics found that during heat waves, plants tend to absorb less pollution from the air. That puts more people at risk of developing respiratory complications, which can lead to death.

The research was conducted in the United Kingdom by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) at the University of York. It was financed by the U.K. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

National Geographic reached out to the study’s lead author, Lisa Emberson, but has not heard back.

The study describes the role plants play in mitigating air pollution by absorbing ozone. Ozone is well known for protecting Earth from harmful cosmic rays in the atmosphere, but when it’s produced at the Earth’s surface, it is the primary component of smog and can irritate human respiratory systems.

Ozone is produced at the surface by photochemical oxidation of carbon dioxide, methane, and various volatile organic compounds when in the presence of nitrous oxides (which are typically produced by vehicle exhaust and industrial emissions).

Normally, plants absorb ozone through their stomata, the small holes in their leaves. But during a heat wave, plants tend to close their stomata in order to decrease water loss. The drier the soil, the tighter the stomata close to help conserve water.

When plants close those pores, however, it means they can absorb less ozone. That leads to a greater buildup of ozone in the air.

Emberson and colleagues found that this loss of ozone absorption by plants resulted in an estimated 460 additional human deaths in the U.K. during the hot summer of 2006.

Read more here.

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  • ishmael2009

    I’d like to see some empirical evidence for this. All these sort of studies rely on reference to epidemiology with the causal links getting increasingly tenuous.

  • BuzzCoastin

    … during a heat wave, plants tend to close their stomata in order to decrease water loss. The drier the soil, the tighter the stomata close to help conserve water.

    in modern industrial farming the soil is kept bare
    this increases soil water loss (dry soil) and the plants react accordingly
    if the soil was covered with mulch and regularly mulched with “green manure”
    this won’t happen
    but it would ruin Monsanto’s business model to mulch the soil
    so it’s unlikely to happen
    instead there will be a GMO solution

  • alizardx

    Sounds like the lesson here is water indoor plants and outdoor plants in public areas. Transpiration should also produce a cooling effect on the watered areas.

  • bodge

    So now we are going to blame the plants for being “inefficient”, I guess someone made a boob and got the design wrong. lol