In Antwerp, researchers of the AIRbezen project are using strawberry plants to measure the amount of fine dust in the city. It’s the first time this kind of bio-monitoring has been applied on such a large scale.
The initiative is the result of a co-operation between StadsLab2050, a think-tank for sustainable city ideas from citizens, and the department of bio-engineering sciences at Antwerp University. The partners are looking for at least 500 inhabitants who want to care for a strawberry plant from March until May. Participants can keep the fruit, as the researchers are only interested in the leaves.
“The amount of fine dust on and in the leaves is a good indicator of the local air quality,” researcher Jelle Hofman told Flemish science magazine Eos. Hofman co-ordinates the project as part of his PhD research. On the basis of the analyses of the plants, he wants to create a detailed map of the air quality in Antwerp.
Antwerp’s air quality is currently monitored through three measuring stations in the city. “These stations are actually insufficient, because the concentration of fine dust can be different 10 metres away from the installation,” said Hofman. “Installing extra measuring equipment would be expensive, but plants measure the fine dust just as well while being both cheap and easy to distribute.”
Strawberry plants have the advantage of being popular with the general public, but the leaves are also convenient because they contain many hairs that collect the fine dust. Previously, Hofman and his colleagues have used moss, grass and other leaves to measure local air quality.
“Plants take up fine dust particles superficially in their leaves,” explained Hofman. “We can detect the magnetisable particles, like iron, and on the basis of their concentration estimate the air quality to which the plant was exposed during its growth. The higher the magnetic signal, the more fine dust.” The map should be ready in August 2014.
The researchers have already identified several problem areas in Antwerp. Ivy leaves at Park Spoor Noord, for example, contained high concentrations of metal, probably due to the historically polluted soil. Where the park is now, there used to be a marshalling yard. Currently, large construction works are being carried out, which probably brought the polluted soil to the surface where it was then spread by the wind.