How does air pollution affect plants?

In this blog post, we will discuss “How does air pollution affect plants?” Firstly, we will discuss everything about air pollution. Then, the article will address the basic details of the plants. Finally, it will cover the connection between poor air quality and plants. In the end, the blog post will provide straightforward solutions to minimize air pollution.

How does air pollution affect plants?

Air pollution can, directly and indirectly, affect the developmental process of the plants. The airborne pollutants can affect the root and shoot system, making it dull in appearance.

Moreover, as the plants are the primary producers of any food chain, the herbivorous and carnivorous animals can get severely affected by the poor air quality. Air pollution can affect the plants in the following cases:

  • Foliar Metabolism and Physiology
  • Leaves and Canopy
  • Plant Growth
  • Underground Processes such as root development

Let’s first learn about the basics of air pollution.

What is air pollution?

The introduction of harmful agents into the atmosphere is known as air pollution. The toxic agents are known as pollutants. These pollutants are derived from natural and human activities, and they can be chemical or biological.

Major pollutants present in the air are particulate matter (PM), ground-level ozone (O3), NO2, SO2, and CO. Air also has lead, allergens, bacteria, viruses and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Besides climate change, air pollution has become a significant environmental risk to human health. 

What is Outdoor and Indoor pollution?

Air pollution in the outside environment is called outdoor pollution. The examples of outdoor pollution are as follows:

  • Transportation
  • Combustion of fossil fuel
  •  Cooking activities
  • Energy generation and consumption
  • Agriculture
  •  Improper Solid Waste Management
  • Industries and factories
  • Household pollution
  • Celebrations
  • Construction and demolition

Air pollution created inside any closed structure is called indoor pollution. The examples of indoor pollution are as follows:

  • Household activities 
  • Perfumes and fresheners 
  • Cooking fuel/activities
  • Cigarette 
  • Radon 
  • Poor ventilation 
  • Uncleaned furniture 
  • Pets 
  • Asbestos

 There are two leading causes of air pollution- natural pollution (happened due to natural events like dust storms) and anthropogenic pollution (happened due to human activities like combustion of fossil fuels).

Now, let’s understand the fundamentals of plants.

What are plants?

Plants are an essential part of our ecosystem. Plants are the living matter which exists on the Earth; it is an integral part of the environment. They are multicellular organisms and belong to the Plantae kingdom. It typically has a stem, leaves, flowers and fruits and roots.

Vascular and Non-vascular plants

Some plants that grow on land are known as vascular plants. These plants have vascular tissue present in the stem to carry the water and nutrients. These types of plants areca are seeded and non-seeded plants. Examples of vascular plants are fern, maize, rose, grasses, etc. However, some types of plants are found in damp and moist areas; they also don’t have vascular tissue. Such plants are called non-vascular plants.

Non-vascular plants don’t possess true roots, stems, or leaves. Instead of roots, they have hair-like rhizoids that firmly holds the ground. These are the primitive plants that were the first ones to arrive before vascular ones. Examples of non-vascular plants are moss, algae, liverwort, hornwort, etc. 

In this world, you will discover more vascular plants than non-vascular ones.

Scientists have found out that there are around 390,000 plant species which is known in the botanical world.   According to the World’s Forest statistics, in 2020, forests will cover 31% of the global land.

How many plants are found in America?

Recently, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) researchers have made a comprehensive list of the known plants in North and South America. They reported around 51,241 species in North America and 82,052 in South America. Thus, approximately 8,300 species are shared between the two continents.

They also revealed more plant species in South America than Africa, even though the African continent is twice as large as South America.

I will give you a list of some of the beautiful native plants in North America.

  • White Sage
  • Wintergreen
  • Iris Setosa
  • Coneflower
  • Lobelia
  • Maidenhair Fern
  • Coral Bells
  • Red Twig Dogwood
  • Winterberry

Sadly, some trees in North America have gone extinct. Those are as follows:

  • Eastern Wahoo
  • Gowen’s Orchid
  • Franklin Tree
  • Old Blue False Pennyroyal
  • American Chestnut

These extinctions can be due to multiple reasons such as urbanization, the danger of invasive species and pollution.

Now, let’s see the connection between poor air quality and the plants.

Does Poor air quality affect plants?

Yes, just like humans, poor quality also affects plants inside out. However, unlike us all, plants can’t travel places to avoid air pollution; they are fixed organisms and face the heat of all air pollution. Various changes in the physiological characteristics depend upon the pollutant concentrations and the nature of pollutants. However, such drastic alterations due to air pollution can immediately affect the plant-insect relationships. The changes in the vegetative crops can also create a danger to human health and can harm many other food chains.

Due to its fixed position, plants are victims of primary and secondary sources of air pollution. Let’s see how air pollution directly affects plants.

Direct Impact of Air pollution on Plants

Leaves

The leaves of the plants first and foremost absorb the airborne pollutants coming from the various sources, and then little penetration of the contaminants occurs in the stem and trunk. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, pollutants such as O3 and NOx affect the metabolic activities of the leaves and affect the net carbon fixation of the plant canopy.

Ozone, alone or either combined with sulphur or particulates, have a destructive ability. When ozone comes in contact with the leaves, it causes chlorosis. Chlorosis is nothing but an abnormal yellowing of leaves. Other pollutants such as black carbon, sulphur dioxide, fluorides, peroxy acyl nitrate and nitrogen oxides also damage various ways.

The visible signs of damage are necrotic lesions and chlorosis. Chlorosis also includes discolouration (yellow leaves), reddening, bronzing and mottling. This results in a deficiency of chlorophyll, which means the plant reduces its ability to make food and energy. Ozone interaction with the leaves thus prevents photosynthesis.

Chemical cocktails in the atmosphere create ozone holes in it. Holes in the upper atmosphere gives passage to excess ultraviolet light. These extra ultraviolet lights, when in contact with the green cover, leads to its damage. Carbon monoxide (CO) is produced from car exhaust emissions. As a result, some evergreen trees will drop their leaves when wholly exposed to them.

Flowers

Can you work productively in a stressed environment? No, you simply can’t give your best. Similarly, a stressed plant will have difficulty producing flowers. This is because the plant will use all the nutrients and resources to fight air pollution and survival. Many botanists have pointed out that plants exposed to heavy vehicular emissions will delay flowering as they are fighting the emissions.

Stomatal Damage

Stomata are present on the leaves, and they are tiny pores that help in the gas exchange between the plant and the atmosphere. The toxic elements in the air obstruct the ongoing stomatal function, which restricts respiration and stunting plant growth. Thus, air pollution affects the plant structure. Further, it reduces the size of stomata, and the proper exchange of the gases is endangered. This whole process slackens the photosynthesis process. 

Now, let’s see the indirect impact of air pollution.

Indirect Impact of air pollution on plants

Acid deposition is the process in which the mixture of air pollutants in the atmosphere and then it’s deposited on the soil and water bodies. This deposition leads to the acidification of these resources. This process occurs due to pollutants produced by the combustion of fossil fuels. These pollutants, such as sulphuric acid and particulates, mix with water droplets to form clouds. However, this rainfall is acidic. This whole process is known as ‘acid rain’.

 

Root Damage

Such acid deposition causes alteration in the nutritional value of soil. In addition, air pollutants such as heavy metals get deposited in the ground. These contaminants affect the root functioning. As a result, plant growth is hampered. Moreover, many botanists have observed that acidic conditions gather a lot of aluminium ions in the soil. Such ions accumulation damages the root systems and prevents the consumption of significant nutrients and ions.

Plants’ immune system behaves just like humans’; it weakens due to air pollution. This can lead to an increased risk of insect infestation. The University of Colorado recently informed that pine trees are more sensitive to damage from pine bark beetles. Newsweek story in 2008 reported that pine beetles were responsible for destroying around 22 and 1.5 million acres of pine trees in Canada and Colorado, respectively.

Air pollution can shift the equilibrium between the competitive balance among the present species. Moreover, it can lead to changes in the composition of biodiversity. In the agricultural sector, acid deposition may result in reduced crop yields. Ever growing air pollution has messed up with the weather conditions too. Polluted air has caused the greenhouse effect, global warming and climate change.

All the above-explained conditions have caused irregular flash floods, prolonged droughts and intense heatwaves. These situations have created havoc in the Plantae Kingdom. In addition to the human-induced fires (bonfires, cigarette butts, or gender reveal parties), intense heatwaves have resulted in numerous wildfires. In 2020 alone, around 58,950 wildfires occurred in the United States as per the National Interagency Fire Centre. Such wildfires burn lots of green covers and damage many plant species. This leads to the loss of rich biodiversity. The dust storms can also coat the leaves of the trees with particulates and hampers their stomatal exchanges.

Do you know that in cities in the hot regions of the USA, you should not plant certain trees such as pines, oaks, etc. Such restriction is to avoid the increase in the ozone levels. However, plants also produce particulates or particulate matter- a pollutant that harms human health. These particulates are pollens, wax compounds, etc.

However, it would be best if you learned to exist with our old green friends symbiotically. Plants are the green lungs of the Earth; these selfless beings help us all to breathe. Although, you should not plant any foreign or invasive species that will threaten the native plants. Don’t pluck any flowers from the plants. Instead, teach your kids and loved ones to enjoy the fascinating nature around you.

In addition to the above, I am providing a detailed solution to protect you and your loved ones from air pollution.

  What can I do to protect myself from air pollution?

I will elaborate on some of the measures to protect yourself from air pollution.

Personal Hygiene

You can also fight the effects of air pollution by maintaining personal hygiene:

  • You can cut your nails short to avoid the accumulation of dirt. 
  • You can also practice mouth gargling after coming home to free your mouth from unwanted guests.
  • You can also brush twice a day to keep airborne infections at bay.
  • You can also take steam therapy at home to cleanse your lungs.

Quit Smoking

Smoking cigarettes, hookahs (shisha), electric vape or any other types of cigars are not at all suitable for your health. It’s best to stop smoking. Active and passive smoking provides the direct entry of harmful pollutants into your body. This causes the risk to your respiration and other organs dependent on it. 

Physical Exercise 

Physical activities have many benefits to your body. It not only improves your stamina and immunity levels but also helps to increase your lung capacity. Yoga, sanas, swimming, running, cycling, brisk walking and dancing are some of the best forms of exercise to improve your health.

Breathing Exercise 

The majority of people in the world don’t breathe properly. However, correct breathing techniques can keep illnesses due to air pollution at bay. A pranayama is a form of yoga asana which helps to improve breathing methods and lung functionality.

Some of the pranayama types that help you fight air pollution are Kapalbhati, Anulom Vilom, Chandra Nadi, Surya Nadi and Bhastrika. It is strongly recommended to learn this art of breath from a well-certified yoga trainer. 

You can also increase your lung muscles by simply taking a deep breath and holding it for a count of 10. Then, slowly breathe out the air. If you can keep your breath for a longer time, then you have good lungs health.

Good diet 

Always go for a well-balanced diet to remain fit and strong. Consistent eating of junk and fast food will increase the risk of obesity and other diseases. In addition, such people are more vulnerable to the adverse effects of air pollution. Instead, add more fresh veggies and fruits to your diet. Also, you can consume less meat to minimise carbon footprints.

You can also add anti-inflammatory foods as these types of food help to cleanse your lungs effectively. Anti-inflammatory foods which I recommend are: 

Immunity booster drinks

You can do your immunity booster drinks by using readily available items in your kitchen. Immunity booster drinks help to cleanse your lungs. Some of the DIY immunity booster drinks are as follows:

  • Take a glass of warm white milk. Add half a teaspoon of turmeric powder to it. Also, add two strands of saffron to it. Drink it at night before sleeping. You will get good sleep, and you will be relieved from chest congestion. 
  • Boil water by adding half cinnamon stick. Drink the spice-infused water once a day. Your sinuses would be cleared up. 
  • Buy an excellent green tea. Prepare a green tea by following the packet instructions. Have it whenever you feel irritation in your throat. 
  • Take some crushed 1 or 2 peppercorns, a half-inch of a blade of lemongrass and 1 inch of grated ginger and half a teaspoon of turmeric powder. Add everything in one glass of boiling water and reduce it to half a glass. Drink two tablespoons of this spice-infused warm water every after three hours. Adding honey is optional. 
  • You can also drink warm water and add honey if you want. Honey helps to relieve throat irritation.

Use Mask

Mask can prevent you from inhaling the polluted air. You would be able to work in contaminated areas without any fear of allergy infections and stress. 

Masks I recommend

Name Why I recommend it
BASE CAMP CROSSDUST MASKEAPI Filter Technology & Advanced NanotechnologyUser FriendlyMore Durable Six layers face maskFilter materials of the dust mask: Double-Layer Melt-blown with Electrostatic Adsorption Performance, Activated carbon, Non-woven Polypropylene
NIOSH approved N95 maskFour layers mask Flexible nose pad, dual strapsDisposable maskEasy to breathe
BASE CAMP Reusable Cloth Face MaskThree layers mask; 100% cotton Skin-friendly and breathablePocket to add additional filterReusable Mask

How can I individually reduce air pollution?

You can always try your level best to minimise air pollution. The following are the methods to reduce air pollution at an individual level.

Plant Trees

Encourage tree plantation drives amongst the communities. You can be a green saviour of your region. Trees are the natural air purifiers of the environment, and it supplies us with clean air.

Municipal councils or the local authorities can develop urban forests to increase the green cover of the locality. They can also plan to create vertical green walls to improve oxygen levels of the region naturally. But don’t forget to plant only indigenous trees. 

Human/ religious celebrations in eco-friendly ways 

Nowadays, many couples celebrate gender (of their baby) revealing parties by bursting firecrackers. But, unfortunately, these firecrackers can transform into massive wildfires if they are burst near trees.

Thus, you can celebrate such celebrations by planting trees in your nearby barren land. Bursting firecrackers on any religious, festive or personal occasion are only going to harm your loved ones. 

You can also celebrate Christmas by not cutting Christmas Trees. Instead, you can buy artificial ones and use them in the coming years too.

Discourage Plastic

Single-use plastic has been one of the major concerns in the environment. Plastic pollution indirectly contributes to the degradation of air quality. Plastic, when burned, releases various toxic gases such as dioxins into the air.

Encourage alternative use of the plastic product. For example, you can wear a cloth bag for shopping. You can also carry your travel cutlery set to a restaurant. Additionally, you can take your water bottle instead of purchasing a packaged drinking water bottle every time.

Use of public transportation 

Increase the use of public transport to reduce air pollution and traffic congestion. You can also try carpooling or the cab sharing option. Then, you can also use bicycles instead of scooters. Lastly, you can always opt for walking a shorter distance. 

Alternative use of fossil fuel

It would be best to try switching to other fuel alternatives. For example, don’t use wood for the fireplace. Instead, you can wear multiple layers of clothes for warmth. In this way, you can conserve energy. Additionally, you can also install solar panels on house roofs to convert solar energy into electricity. 

You can also buy electric and hybrid vehicles to minimise tailpipe emissions. Finally, propose or discuss a plan with your mayor or any relevant local authority to promote your region’s renewable energy sector.

Reduction of personal carbon footprints

You can also keep a check on your carbon footprints. For example, you can delete unwanted photos, videos or emails from clouds and email boxes as and when possible. Unfortunately, this unwanted stuff takes a lot of energy, which indirectly contributes to air pollution.

You can also switch off the lights and electrical appliances of the vacant rooms. Try buying local products instead of imported ones. Be vocal about them. You can also discover your own country rather than travelling to different ones.

Create Awareness

Air pollution is unpredictable; air pollution in your vicinity can affect people living in Asia and vice-a-versa. However, you can create public awareness about air pollution amongst your community by teaching and interacting with your kids about the importance of good air. 

Educate youth by telling them the ill effects of poor air quality. Then, let your country’s future know that they deserve a better place to live!

How can the local authorities improve the air quality of your region?

You can always observe the changes happening in your surrounding nature. If you experience bad air quality or any activities producing air pollution, you can always concern relevant local authorities or the mayor.

Here are some methods which local authorities can do.

Proper disposal of waste 

Improper solid waste management of an area is an invitation to many diseases and infections. In addition, burning solid waste in public can cause air pollution, although such practices are rare in the US. 

The wastes are mainly disposed of in the engineered landfills and recycled before final disposal to landfills and waste incinerators. 

In addition, waste incinerators help to convert waste into energy.

However, many researchers have claimed that gasification technology or waste-to-energy technology may release harmful gaseous contaminants. Thus, it is necessary that waste collectors rigorously segregate the waste before sending it to waste incinerators. 

The best solution is to minimise waste at a personal level. Statistically, 70% of the waste generated can be recycled effectively. Thus, strive to recycle your waste at a personal level as much as possible.

Reducing air pollution from agriculture

Stubble burning is still practised in some parts of the US. This event contributes to the degradation of air. Local authorities can help farmers convert this waste into cattle fodder or be transformed into pellets as fuel. In addition, farmers should stop the usage of harmful pesticides or fertilisers to decrease air pollution.

How can I reduce indoor air pollution?

Maintaining household or indoor hygiene

You can decrease poor air quality by adequately maintaining indoor hygiene. For example, you can frequently clean your cupboards and open decks to avoid an accumulation of dust particles. You can then vacuum your carpets and sofas at least twice a week. 

Make sure your doggies and cats are well-groomed. Use chimneys and exhaust fans in kitchens. You can also install an exhaust fan in washrooms. Always make sure you are keeping your house well ventilated. 

Keep doors and windows open when possible. Maintain the health of electric appliances such as heaters, humidifiers, AC, fans, air ducts and so on at regular intervals of the year. Avoid overuse of strong perfumes or strong scented candles indoors. You can additionally use indoor plants to make your indoors more lively and fresh.

Indoor plants

Indoor plants do the same work as outdoor ones- they help to purify indoor air naturally. These indoor plants are also easy to maintain.

The indoor plants which I recommend are as follows: 

Air purifiers

Air purifiers help to improve indoor air quality. The risk of getting air pollution-related diseases decreases due to the use of air purifiers. Air purifiers having good HEPA filters do an adequate job of filtering pollutants.

Air Purifiers I recommend are as follows:

NameWhy I recommend it
Blueair Pro XL Air Purifier99.7% of airborne pollutants such as mould, allergens, smoke particles and pollens are captured. 
AIRMEGA 400SReduction of 99.97% of particulates of 0.3 microns. Also responsible for reducing more than 99% of VOCs, NH3 and CH3CHO.Washable and permanent pre-filters are available 
Blueair Pure 121Includes 3-part filtration system. Captures 99% of common airborne PM 2.5 pollutants such as allergens, odours, smoke, mould spores, dust mites and pet dander.An activated carbon filter removes common odours caused by smoke, pets, and gases (VOCs) and smoke caused by wildfires.

Humidifiers

The humidity levels in the office should be maintained between 30 and 50% in the office. This range helps to keep dust mites, mould and other allergens under control. In addition, when AC or heater makes the air in the room dry, humidifiers can maintain correct humidity levels.

Humidifiers I recommend

Name Why I recommend it
Amazon Basics Ultrasonic Cool Mist Humidifier 4 litre of tank capacityAuto shut-off feature and 12 or 24-hour timer settingsIt can be used in both seasons
MOVTIP HumidifierPortable Mini-humidifier500 ml capacity, still produces longer mistsEasy to operate
LEVOIT HumidifierIt can be used for both seasons6 litres of capacity Easy to clean and has a remote control

Dehumidifiers 

Dehumidifiers also work similarly to humidifiers. It controls the high levels of humidity in the office.

Dehumidifiers I recommend

Name Why I recommend it
Pro Breeze DehumidifierCan extract 50 pints of moisture a dayEnergy-saving auto-off systemBuilt-in Humidity sensor
HOmeLabs DehumidifierEliminates moistness, odour controllerEasy to cleanRemovable water tank
TCL Portable Dehumidifier20 pints of moisture removed per dayIt can be operated at low temperatures tooEasy to maintain

Other FAQs about Air Quality that you may be interested in.

How does air pollution affect food?

How does air pollution affect insects?

How does air pollution affect lungs?

Conclusion

In this blog post, we discussed “How does air pollution affect plants?” Firstly, we discussed the basics of air pollution. Then, we addressed the basic details of the plants. Finally, the article covered the connection between poor air quality and plants. In the end, the blog post provided a detailed solution to minimize air pollution.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): How does air pollution affect plants?

What does air pollution do to plants?

Air pollution causes adverse effects on plant growth. It can hamper its photosynthesis process. When pollutants such as O3 and nitrogen oxides come in contact with the leaves, it can affect their metabolism and interfere with net carbon fixation by the plant canopy.

Which pollutants causes chlorosis in plants?

Ozone causes chlorosis in plants. This is because ozone enters into leaves through stomata during typical gas exchange. As ozone is a strong oxidant, it causes several types of symptoms, including chlorosis and necrosis. 

Which trees clean the air best?

The trees that clean the air best are silver birch, yew, and elder trees, which most effectively capture particulate pollution.

What are the effects of air pollution on plants?

The effects of air pollution on plants are:

  • Necrotic lesions
  • Hampered plant growth
  • Discolouration

How do trees reduce air pollution?

Trees reduce air pollution by absorbing harmful carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Trees can absorb it by the photosynthesis process. Such a technique can reduce the ‘greenhouse effect.

Which of the following plants are sensitive to air pollution?

The plants which are sensitive to air pollution are:

  • Spinach
  • Squash
  • Sweet corn
  • Tobacco

References

A detailed map of North and South America’s plant diversity. EurekAlert! Available at: https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/767321  

Air Pollution. World Health Organization. Available at: https://www.who.int/health-topics/air-pollution#tab=tab_1

Effect of pollution on plants (and do they help fight pollution?). Conserve Energy Future. Available at: https://www.conserve-energy-future.com/plant-pollution.php

Facts + Statistics: Wildfires. Insurance Information Institute. Available at: https://www.iii.org/fact-statistic/facts-statistics-wildfires  

Grahams, A., 2021. How Does Air Pollution Affect Plants?. [online] eHow. Available at https://www.ehow.com/info_7998656_air-pollution-affect-plants.html

Greentumble. 2017. Effect of Pollution on Plants | Greentumble. [online] Available at https://greentumble.com/effect-of-pollution-on-plants/#:~:text=The%20effects%20of%20air%20pollution%20on%20plants%20are,the%20pollution%20include%20carbon%2C%20sulfur%2C%20and%20nitrogen%20oxides.

Hongfa, C., 1989. Air Pollution and Its Effects on Plants in China. The Journal of Applied Ecology, 26(3), p.763.

How many plant species have gone extinct in North America? • the revelator. The Revelator. Available at: https://therevelator.org/plant-species-extinct-america/  

Jean-Pierre, G.A.R.R.E.C., 2019. What is the impact of air pollutants on vegetation? Encyclopedia of the Environment. Available at: https://www.encyclopedie-environnement.org/en/life/impact-air-pollutants-on-vegetation/  

Mathewson, C., 2017. Healthfully. [online] Healthfully. Available at https://healthfully.com/list-of-diseases-in-plants-caused-by-viruses-12280881.html

Noonan, J., 2019. 34 amazing plants that are native to North America. Bob Vila. Available at: https://www.bobvila.com/slideshow/34-amazing-plants-that-are-native-to-north-america-52242  

Planning Tank. 2015. Effects of Air Pollution on Plants. [online] Available at https://planningtank.com/environment/effect-of-air-pollution-on-plants

Plant response to air pollution. EPA. Available at: https://cfpub.epa.gov/si/si_public_record_Report.cfm?Lab=NHEERL&dirEntryId=50437  

Reference.com. 2020. How Does Air Pollution Affect Plants?. [online] Available at https://www.reference.com/science/air-pollution-affect-plants-1b23b1557b8c692  

Sapkota, A., muhd, Z. & Tiwari, A., 2020. Vascular vs non-vascular plants- definition, 17 differences, examples. Microbe Notes. Available at: https://microbenotes.com/vascular-vs-non-vascular-plants/  

Weber, J., D. Tingey, AND C. Andersen. PLANT RESPONSE TO AIR POLLUTION. US Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, EPA/600/A-93/050 (NTIS PB93167260).

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