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Common moss may prove a cheap city pollution monitor, say scientists

by Sophie Hares | @SophieHares | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 21 August 2017 11:47 GMT

Scientist Yoshitaka Oishi checks moss in Tomakomai City, Japan, in May 2015. Photo credit: Yumiko Nomura

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Could common moss be a cheap and easy way to monitor pollution in our cities?

By Sophie Hares

TEPIC, Mexico, Aug 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Delicate mosses found on rocks and trees in cities around the world can be used to measure the impact of atmospheric change and could prove a low-cost way to monitor urban pollution, according to Japanese scientists.

The "bioindicator" responds to pollution or drought-stress by changing shape, density or disappearing, allowing scientists to calculate atmospheric alterations, said Yoshitaka Oishi, associate professor at Fukui Prefectural University.

"This method is very cost effective and important for getting information about atmospheric conditions," Oishi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.

"Mosses are a common plant in all cities so we can use this method in many countries ... they have a big potential to be bioindicators," said Oishi, who analysed nearly 50 types of moss for the study.

Oishi said humid cities where moss thrives could benefit most from using bryophytes - a collective term for mosses, hornworts and liverworts - as bioindicators, adding moss could be monitored in its natural environment or cultivated for analysis.

In a research paper published in the Landscape and Urban Planning journal, Oishi and a colleague described how they studied the effect of nitrogen pollution, air quality and drought-stress on moss found over a 3km square (1.9 mile) area in Hachioji City in northwestern Tokyo.

The study showed severe drought-stress tended to occur in areas with high levels of nitrogen pollution, which it said raised concerns over the impact on health and biodiversity.

Pylaisiadelpha tenuirostris, which is the dominant moss species cited in scientist Yoshitaka Oishi's study on sensitive "bioindicators" which respond to pollution and drought-stress on urban heat islands. Kyoto City, March 2017. Photo Credit: Yoshitaka Oishi

However, the scientists could not effectively measure air purity which affects the number of moss types as pollution levels in the sample area were not high enough, said Oishi.

"If the air pollution is severe, the purity is also evaluated by moss ... the change of the moss is very diverse according to the environmental problem," said Oishi.

Bioindicators such as mosses - which generally absorb water and nutrients from their immediate environments - were often cheaper to use than other methods of environmental evaluation, and can also reflect changes to ecosystems, said the scientists.

The World Health Organization says 88 percent of city dwellers are exposed to annual pollution levels that exceed its air quality guidelines.

Southeast Asia and the eastern Mediterranean have the worst air quality, followed by countries in Latin America and Africa.

"We believe this method can contribute to the evaluation of atmospheric pollution in other areas," said Oishi.

(Reporting by Sophie Hares; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)

The Thomson Reuters Foundation is reporting on resilience as part of its work on zilient.org, an online platform building a global network of people interested in resilience, in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation.

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